Alice Mary StewartBMJ 2002; 325 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.325.7355.106 (Published 13 July 2002) Cite this as: BMJ 2002;325:106
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The obituary written by Dr.Caroline Richmond aptly summarised the
contributions of Dr.Alice Stewart in the field of epidemiology. Dr.Stewart
carried out pioneering research in the early years of her career.But to
many, she remained the darling heroine of the anti-nuclear movement.I
subscribe to that view.
When she died many wrote obituaries. I read those in the Guardian,
The Times and the British Medical Journal. The one that was published in
BMJ was particularly disappointing. I do agree that an obituary cannot be
an objective assessment of the work of a person.But the account by
Caroline Richmond contained a few casual statements. While describing the
contributions of Dr.Stewart,She writes "She showed that x-rays in
pregnancy caused childhood leukaemia. She demonstrated that low level
radiation was far more serious than had been officially accepted".Was the
evidence so unequivocal?
The articles on her life does not even remotely refer to the
scientific crticism of her work.Though volumes have been written about it
by many scientists. The closest to anything which may be taken as
criticism appeared in the columns of The Times.The author states
that.."although she could deliver her findings in person with exceptional
clarity, her publications were often very hard to decipher".
Dr.Stewart did contribute to the field. May be she was
controversial.It is true that her views were not palatable to the
establishmnet.I believe that her careful analysis of the data collected
from the Oxford Childhood Cancer Study helped to reduce needless x-ray
exposures to the unborn due to procedures such as pelvimetry.
In a personal note to me Prof. John Cameron formerly of the Wisconsin
University wrote,"The world needs the Alice Stewart types. I think she
made useful contribution...... her general popularity is more due to the
need of the anti-nuclear establishment to have a hero for their cause. It
is flattering to be a hero and in the process Alice may have come to
believe in greater effects than her data demonstrated".
Ms caroline Richmond refers to the work Dr Stewart did in
collaboration with Dr.Thomas Mancuso. The topic was the effects of
occupational radiation exposures on the health of nuclear workers.The
authors claimed that their study revealed that radiation risks are
actually ten times more than those predicted from A-bomb survivor studies.
Dr.Allen Brodsky who recommended her to Dr.Mancuso told me his side
of the story, "She first supported our statistical plan for the
'retrospective-prospective' design of the AEC Health and Mortality study,
which she later discarded when she had control of the analysis(after
Mancuso fired Dr.Sanders who was a dedicated and honest investigator)".
Soon after the first presentation of the study at the 1971 HPS Handford
Midyear Symposium,Dr.Alice Stewart told Dr.Brodsky that she really does
not understand statistics. That was probably excusable. Dr.George Kneale
was her trusted statistician.
While responding to the criticism of her epidemiological methods by
Dr.Richard Doll, Dr.Stewart- "the maverick of radiation epidemiology"-
proudly announced "Doll does not know a fraction of the mathematics that
Dr. Allen Brodsky had successfully contested her arguments in a court
case.Dr.Brodsky tells me that he no longer trusts the objectivity of
anything she might write. He also felt that she has been made a hero
mainly by the media attention given to any one in the anti-nuclear power
When writing an obituary, the heart may win over the head. It is
permissible and may even be appropriate.
My pretensions to be a neutral and harsh regulator compete with my
interests in learning all about the effects of radiation, its possible
risks and likely benefits. Presently, I have no sympathy for radiation
Competing interests: No competing interests