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Professor Alice Stewart (main image)

Image courtesy of Medact/Wellcome Library, LondonWellcome Images

EdUcation

Studied pre-clinical medicine at Girton College, University of Cambridge (one of only four female undergraduates studying medicine). Received her clinical training at the Royal Free Hospital in London.

Research area

Epidemiology, specialising in social medicine and the effects of radiation on health.

Career

  • In 1935 Stewart became a consultant physician, a notable achievement for a woman in the 1930s.
  • In 1941 she took a senior teaching position at the Nuffield Department of Clinical Medicine where she carried out research on the risks of aplastic anaemia and jaundice in shell-filling factories using TNT.
  • From 1956, Stewart conducted a nationwide case-control study of children with cancer (the Oxford Survey of Childhood Cancers, OSCC). Her research suggested that the effects of X-ray radiation could be much more serious than first imagined, and revealed strong links between child leukaemia and a mother’s exposure to X-rays in early pregnancy. Stewart had to fight to have the results recognised, and it wasn’t until the 1970s that American and British health groups recommended that pregnant women should not be X-rayed.
  • Together with statistician George Kneale, Stewart worked for the US government on the Hanford Survey, which investigated the health of the workers at the weapons complex that had produced plutonium for the Manhattan Project. Her results exposed high cancer rates amongst adult workers exposed to radiation, although serious questions were asked about her methodology. In 1990, the New York Times described her as ‘perhaps the [US] Energy Department's most influential and feared scientific critic.’
  • For her pioneering work, Stewart was awarded the Right Livelihood Award (often called the ‘alternative Nobel Prize’) by the Swedish Parliament in 1986, and the 1991 Ramazzini Award.
  • Stewart was the first woman member of the Association of Physicians, and the ninth (and youngest) to become a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians. She co-founded The British Journal of Industrial Medicine.

Further reading