Anne SzarewskiBMJ 2013; 347 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.f5890 (Published 01 October 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f5890
- Anne Gulland, London
Cervical cancer was the focus of Anne Szarewski’s research career. She was one of the first to develop an understanding of the link between the human papillomavirus (HPV) and the disease, and how screening for HPV was as important as the routine smear test. In 1995 she led a study showing that testing for the presence of HPV on cells taken during the smear could pick up precancerous abnormalities missed by the routine test.1 More studies followed, and she eventually became the principal investigator on the GlaxoSmithKline team that developed the bivalent HPV vaccine. This was used when the government first introduced routine vaccinations for girls in 2008. In 2012 it was replaced by the quadrivalent vaccine which additionally protects against genital warts.
As soon as the vaccine was introduced, Szarewski called for it to be given to boys as well as girls, telling one interviewer that it was unfair that the responsibility for protecting oneself against the sexually transmitted virus should lay with women only.2 She also believed that the vaccine should be made available to older women and had begun to initiate some trials in this area.
For her PhD she looked at the effects of smoking cessation on precancer in the cervix.3 Smoking cessation experts were amazed at her success in persuading her patients to give up tobacco, says Peter Sasieni, professor of cancer epidemiology and statistics, and a colleague of Szarewski’s for more than 20 years at the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine.
Practical research was her hallmark. She undertook studies where women took samples from their own cervix using a swab and showed that the results were nearly as accurate as tests undertaken on a clinical sample. In her early career she studied five different cervical screening devices. Her research was driven by a desire to ensure that as many women as possible could be protected from cervical cancer, says Louise Cadman, a research nurse who worked with Szarewski on many of her trials. “She was motivated by a desire to benefit women and those who were overlooked. In recent years we have published research on women who have been sexually abused in childhood, and on women from different ethnic groups,” she says.
Szarewski was born in London, the only daughter of older Polish parents. Her father, who fled the Nazis, died when she was still at medical school. She went to Streatham and Clapham Hill High School for Girls, and then studied medicine at London’s Middlesex Hospital, graduating in 1982. She worked at various hospitals in London before going to the Whittington, where she worked for Albert Singer, now emeritus professor of gynaecology at University College London.
Singer advised Szarewski to follow a career in academia rather than in the “hurly burly” of the male dominated specialty of obstetrics and gynaecology. He then recommended her for a job at the Wolfson Institute, where she remained for the rest of her career.
Family planning was another interest, and she worked as a doctor in contraception and sexual health at the Margaret Pyke Centre in London for many years. She wrote several books on contraception and the pill, and from 2003 was editor of the Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care. Under her editorship the journal broadened its scope. It included book and film reviews, and Szarewski commissioned non-medical writers, such as psychologist Susan Quilliam.
She felt that communication was an important part of her role as a researcher and was angry about the 1995 pill scare, when the Committee on Safety of Medicines wrote to every GP in the country warning them of the risk of venous thromboembolism (VTE) among women taking the third generation oral contraceptive pill.4 The media were told about the risk before many GPs, and the rate of abortions rose by 9% as a result. One of the problems with the communication was lack of clarity about relative risk versus absolute risk. “It was the relative risk that was hitting the headlines,” says Sasieni. “Anne thought more women got VTE as a result of unwanted pregnancy than got it due to the pill,” he says.
She was adept at explaining complex science to a lay audience, says Sasieni. “She pretended she couldn’t cope with maths and statistics, and she said that she was better at explaining statistical concepts to a lay audience than someone who found it really easy,” he says.
She also enjoyed speaking to the media and was used regularly as a spokesperson by the Cancer Research UK press office. When Alma Sedgewick, a character on Coronation Street, died from cervical cancer it caused a spike in interest in the disease and Szarewski was happy to talk to journalists.
She married South African journalist Lester Venter when she was in her 40s, and loved theatre, classical music, and art exhibitions. She was also a voracious reader. She was a popular colleague who was known as the cake lady for the treats she would bring in to the office. She also had a good sense of humour, christening her research team “team cervix.”
She leaves her husband.
Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f5890
Anne Marie Szarewski, clinical consultant (b 1959; q 1982 University of London), d 24 August 2013.