If you aren’t an epidemiologist of a certain age — or even if you are — you’ve probably not heard of Alice Stewart. Alice was one of England’s premier epidemiologists in the mid to late 20th century, but I didn’t meet her until she was in her 80s. At the time she could still bound up the two flights of stairs to my office like a teen in good shape. I’m not exaggerating. She literally took it at top speed and without becoming breathless. When she died at age 95 in 2002, obituaries frequently described her as “indefatigable,” and she was certainly that. “Boundless energy” might be another phrase, along with “sharp as a tack.” I thought about her again when I ran across a short bio of her on the British Medical Journal’s YouTube channel, which I’ve embedded below, and realized how little known she is despite having had such a great impact on modern life.
While you may not have heard of Alice Stewart, chances are she has affected your life. To take just one small example, when I was a kid it was pretty common to have full on fluoroscopes in shoe stores. You’d stand on a little platform in front of this console that had a slot for your feet at the bottom and a view visor atop looking down on your feet. What you saw when you looked down was your little feet inside the shoes, bones and all. You could wiggle your toes and seem them move. Needless to say there was a lot of radiation exposure with these machines. Most people today would be aghast at this unregulated and profligate radiation exposure of children and the general public. Pregnant women today don’t even get medically indicated x-rays unless absolutely necessary and when you get dental x-rays they put a lead shield across your torso. You can thank Alice Stewart for that.
From her obit in The Independent in 2002:
The incidence of child leukaemias was increasing and no one knew why. She suspected that the mothers might remember something the doctors did not, so she interviewed them and rapidly saw the correlation with X-rays, which she demonstrated statistically. X-rays were medicine’s new toy and were being used for everything from examining the position of the foetus to treating acne; even shoe shops had X-ray machines where customers could see how their footwear fitted. This was at the height of the arms race, when the British and US governments were trying to build up public trust in the friendly atom and did not want people to get the idea that low-dose radiation could kill their children.
The leukaemia-pregnancy link was briefly resisted by the medical establishment but soon led to a ban on X-rays on pregnant women. It was, however, fiercely opposed by many physicists and radiobiologists, the UK National Radiation Protection Board, the International Commission for Radiation Protection, and by the powerful nuclear lobbies, within and outside government, that ICRP seemed to serve. Stewart’s findings implied that low-level radiation, which had become an everyday part of life for nuclear workers, the armed forces and sometimes even the public, could be far more harmful than had been thought or admitted. (The Independent)
Alice was not only full of energy but full of determination. After she retired from Oxford at 68 she just kept going, like the Energizer Bunny. Indeed her most controversial study was yet to come, when she teamed up with another eminent epidemiologist of a by-gone era, Thomas Mancuso (whom I also knew) in a study of the nuclear workers at Hanford, Washington. Their results showed an increased cancer risk in workers considered to have “low level” exposure. For their trouble Alice, Tom and their biostatistician collaborator, George Kneale were reviled by the nuclear industry and the medical establishment. If it bothered Alice she didn’t make a big deal about it. She laughed about it on one of her visits, but I know she suffered professionally, first as a woman (never being named a professor at Oxford), then as a notorious thorn in the side of the nuclear industry and medical establishment.
With that preamble, here’s the BMJ vignette. It’s quite nice, although it would have been even nicer if there were clips of Alice speaking, exhibiting all of her boundless energy and determination. It’s not long (under 10 minutes) but there are judicious and appreciative assessments of her work from colleagues and her biographer. If you never heard of Alice Stewart (quite likely), now’s your chance to find out about a remarkable person who should be better known: