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Obituaries

Alice Stewart, 95; Studied Radiation Dangers

July 14, 2002|RICHARD PEARSON | WASHINGTON POST

Alice Stewart, a noted British physician and research epidemiologist whose findings on the dangers of low-level radiation brought her international acclaim and controversy, has died. She was 95.

Stewart died June 23 in Oxford, England. The cause of death was not reported.

She devoted her professional life to issues of social medicine, especially to studies warning of the danger of even low-level radiation doses for such groups as pregnant women and nuclear workers. Along the way, she took on the British and U.S. governments, as well as the nuclear establishment.

The author of more than 400 technical papers and a founder of the British Journal of Industrial Medicine, Stewart always contended that she was a scientist rather than an activist. Yet she became known for her speeches to groups questioning nuclear policies, especially after the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl incidents. In 1986, she received the Right Livelihood Award, which is often called the alternative Nobel Prize, for her contributions to society.

She first gained headlines while at Oxford University in the mid-1950s and working on the Oxford Child Health Surveys. The number of childhood leukemia cases in Britain was skyrocketing, a phenomenon Stewart attributed to the exposure of pregnant women to low-level radiation doses from medical X-rays. At the time, X-rays were commonly used by physicians to study the position of the fetus.

Stewart's research showed that the children of women who had been X-rayed were more than twice as likely to develop leukemia by age 10 than the children of women who had not been X-rayed while pregnant.

Her findings raised a storm in the nuclear establishment, including among physicians who saw opening horizons for nuclear medicine to diagnose and treat myriad diseases.

Others who were outraged included many in governments who had been assuring their military forces and nuclear workers of the benign effects of mild radiation.

Stewart found funding for further studies hard to come by and found government groups blocking her access to raw data for research. Other studies backed her conclusions, though, and by the 1970s, prenatal X-rays had largely been stopped.

The stakes were dramatically raised in the mid-1970s when Stewart was invited to become a consultant to a federal study into the effects of low-level radiation on workers at the historic nuclear plant in Hanford, Wash. It was a huge government facility remembered as the source of plutonium used in World War II atomic bombs.

The Hanford Survey was the largest study of its kind into the long-term health of nuclear workers. Stewart's initial findings indicated that workers at Hanford were 10 times more likely to develop cancer later in life than was commonly believed.

The study was not published by the government, and Stewart published work based on her data and on material submitted to her.

Alice Mary Naish was born in Sheffield, England, to parents who were both physicians. She received her medical degree from Cambridge University, and during World War II she conducted acclaimed studies on the health risks of factory workers and miners.

Stewart joined Oxford University's School of Social Medicine. She taught and did research until 1974. She then became a senior research fellow in Birmingham University's Social Medicine Department. She retired about two years ago.

Her marriage to Ludovick Stewart ended in divorce.

Survivors include a daughter, also a physician, and four grandchildren.

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