BOOKS The Woman Who Knew Too Much: Alice Stewart and the Secrets of Radiation by Gayle Greene University of Michigan Press 360 pages, $17.95. 0 nce, when the world and I were a great deal younger, it was my journalistic pre rogative to be seated next to the British physician Alice Stewart at an antinuke fundraising breakfast where she was the honored guest. Awestruck, I hazarded a question: “Dr. Stewart, what do you consider your most important scientific accomplishment?” to which she replied, between bites of toast, “I invented epidemiology.” I didn’t dare ask her what that meant, but Gayle Greene, bless her, did. What might be called “basic epidemiology” was invented by Dr. John Snow, who traced an outbreak of cholera to a contaminated well. What Stewart meant was that she had refined, enlargedone could say transformedthe science. Along the way she revolutionized medical practice. And in the words of The New York Times she also became the nuclear establishment’s “most influential and feared scientific critic.” Most books that treat of atomic catastrophe are a hard sell, the reason being, of course, that scarcely anybody can bear to read them. But The Woman Who Knew Too Much is something of an exception; a lot of it is grim beyond belief, but a lot of it isn’t. Once word gets around about the un-grim part, it should have a new audience, one outside Dr. Stewart’s disciples in the antinuclear movement. That new audience English majors! Also, English teachers, Alice Stewart 24 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 8/3/01 English lit profs, fans of Merchant Ivory/E.M. Forster movies, reciters of Ezra Pound, W.H. Auden and “the Oracle” \(critic William Empson’s irrevand onthe whole band of nostalgic Anglophiles who still pine for that golden phase between the two wars when Empson, at the hub of it all, was making and breaking reputations and writing his own difficult poetry. But, you ask, what’s all this stuff about Empson doing in a review of a book on the life of Alice Stewart? What was he to Stewart or she to Empson? Greene deliciously revealsto the amazement of many of Stewart’s admirers in the anti-nuclear movementthat all the while their heroine was carrying out her world-shaking studies, all that long while when she was establishing that even very low levels of radiation kill, that there is no threshold for radiation effects, she was simultaneously carrying on a sizzling love affair with the dashing, iconoclastic, and married poet/critic. The two had met as undergraduates at Cambridge where Stewart, at once ostracized and bored by the male medical students, chose to run exclusively with the literati. But Empson soon scooted off to adventures in the Far East accompanied by his recent bridenot Stewart, who later drifted desultorily into a less than happy marriage to a master at an elite private school. Many years later, when Empson came home, he ran into her at a party, and asked her to dance. After that, she told Greene, “we went right on dancing, as it were.” “The years between the wars,” he once wrote, “were like a circus with a thrill in every turn. But the post-war scene turned flat and dull.” Perhaps, he added, striking a note of uncharacteristic pessimism, “the atomic bombs have rabbitted our heads.”When he died of a cancerwhich, like all post-World War II malignancies may well have been caused by atomic radiationStewart’s closest companions became fellow researcher George Kneale and the scientists, activists and writers of the antinuclear movement, who now include Gayle Greene. Now for the grim part of the story. In 1956 Stewart produced the first of her two celebrated studies, the Oxford Childhood Cancer Survey, which demonstrated that a single diagnostic xray received in utero doubles a child’s risk of early cancer. Greene communicates the drama of how Stewart arrived at this finding by first visiting every one of England’s 203 county health offices and then tracking down the mothers of children who had died of cancer \(an accomplishment that is all the more remarkable since Stewart was working before the time of computerized dataout a uniquely exhaustive questionnaire concerning their children’s lifestyles going back to birth as well to events that had occurred during the fetal stage beginning with conception. As Greene makes clear, a conventional epidemiologist would have stopped the investiga Go Ask Alice BY ANNA MAYO
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