Alice M. Stewart, radiation & health expert

This post comes from Zoë Maughan, Student Archives Assistant in the Historical Collections & Archives.

Dr. Alice Stewart at the Fifth International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War European Congress, Coventry, 1990
Dr. Alice Stewart at the Fifth International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War European Congress, Coventry, 1990 (from Wellcome Images, via Wikimedia Commons)

Have you ever wondered about how we understand the health effects of radiation? Now is your chance to learn a bit about the career of Dr. Alice Stewart, epidemiologist and expert on radiation and health, who challenged the nuclear industry over safety issues and advocated for the cause of people exposed to radiation. Two items from the Alice M. Stewart interviews collection are now available to access online. The first of these is a speech, “The Health Effects of Nuclear Radiation,” given by Dr. Stewart at the Cambridge Forum on April 12, 1989. The second is an interview with Dr. Stewart conducted by KBOO, a community radio station broadcasting from Portland, on April 5, 1990. Much of Dr. Stewart’s fascinating career in social medicine and the health consequences of radiation is detailed between the speech and interview.

Dr. Alice Stewart was born Alice Mary Naish in Sheffield, England in 1906. Receiving her medical degree from Cambridge in 1932, Dr. Stewart went on to demonstrate that exposure to low-level radiation was much more dangerous than previously understood. Dr. Stewart accepted a teaching post at Oxford and began research on ammunition plant workers who filled shells with TNT in 1941. Her research concluded that increased exposure to TNT impaired the body’s ability to form blood. This discovery led Britain to revise their manufacturing processes.

In 1953, she was the first person to demonstrate the link between X-rays during pregnancy and childhood disease. Dr. Stewart found that children whose mothers had had an abdominal X-ray to determine the position of their baby were nearly twice as likely to have cancer as other children. While her findings were initially met with outrage from doctors and the nuclear industry, they were later duplicated and the practice was discontinued by the 1970s. Physicians no longer X-ray pregnant people as a result of Dr. Stewart’s research.

Dr. Stewart was a prolific scientist, authoring more than 400 peer-reviewed papers. She took courageous stands on contentious issues: for example, arguing that the data on Hiroshima survivors, which served as the main source for standards on safe levels of radiation exposure, were flawed and underestimated the harmful nature of radiation.

Perhaps Dr. Stewart’s most famous investigation, pertaining to the health records of employees at the Hanford plutonium production plant in Washington state, came after her formal retirement. Known as the Hanford Study, Dr. Stewart found a far higher occurrence of radiation-induced illness among workers than was recorded in official studies. Her research remains a significant response to the perceived bias in reports authored by the nuclear industry.

Rudi Nussbaum, professor of physics at Portland State University (PSU), invited Dr. Stewart for a sabbatical at PSU in 1984. The majority of the materials in the Alice M. Stewart interviews are from this time period, including a variety of interviews and speeches. Interviewers include Rudi Nussbaum, Tom Graham, Gayle Green, Karen Steingart, and more.

Dr. Alice Stewart died in 2002, aged 95, in Oxford, England. To read more about Dr. Stewart’s groundbreaking career in radiology and epidemiology, visit our Digital Collections.

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