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The X-ray vision of a saintly pioneer

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Dr Alice Stewart, the British epidemiologist, faced decades of implacable and sometimes malicious hostility for contending that X-rays of pregnant women were causing cancer in children. Her tenacity changed medical practice, earning the thanks of parents everywhere. In the medical pantheon, she ranks beside Frances Oldham Kelsey, who refused to sanction the drug thalidomide, as reported recently in  TCW Defending Freedom. Their work highlights the dangers of the Covid agenda to inject pregnant women. Here Dr Stewart recounted her extraordinary struggle.

‘IF YOU are unpopular you might as well not exist,’ said Dr Alice Stewart. Officially she did not exist when I met her in 1984. She began to turn opaque in 1956 when she discovered that X-rays of pregnant women can cause cancers in children. Her subsequent work on the dangers of low-level radiation in the nuclear industry had been expunged from the record.

Yet to researchers and ecology groups she had become a legend, a precious lode of information to counter the soothing assertions of the medical and nuclear establishments. Accustomed to interviewing the great and the good, on this occasion I had the sense of being in the presence of a living saint.

However, there was nothing ethereal about this 77-year-old epidemiologist. Laughter modulated a strong clinical voice and the indomitable spirit which had carried her through nearly 30 years of obstructions to international renown.

The contrast between her achievements and her surroundings could not have been more poignant. Her office was a Portakabin – purchased with an American grant – plonked down among the clutter of buildings forming the Birmingham Cancer Registry in Edgbaston. Another sign of the British government’s enduring hostility came two years later, when she won the so-called ‘alternative Nobel prize’, the Right Livelihood Award. The British Embassy refused to send a car to collect her at the airport when she flew to Stockholm to receive the honour.

With brisk humour she described her remarkable life. The well-qualified daughter of two Sheffield doctors, and something of a ‘whizz-kid’, she arrived in Oxford with two children in 1941 to be confronted with a series of unique opportunities. The first of these, classified as secret, involved establishing the link between TNT high explosive and the incidence of jaundice and anaemia among workers in shell factories. ‘I decided I could get a much better grip on it if I went and filled the shells myself. Within a short time we were able to say that it was dose-related and identify the dangerous places in the industry.’

She was aware that in career terms, social medicine was a hazardous step. ‘My friends thought that I had committed professional suicide. I was on a runaway career, being promoted to Oxford and all sorts of things that had never happened to a woman before. I couldn’t foresee all the troubles that were going to come.’

Her troubles began when she announced the link between X-rays in pregnancy and child cancer. Conducting the biggest mass survey of its kind, she collected information from 80 per cent of new mothers on hundreds of thousands of their children across Britain over a 30-year period. This demonstrated the connection between leukaemia before the age of ten and the mother’s exposure to X-rays during early pregnancy. Her findings were aggressively opposed by colleagues and radiologists, who accused her of taking the bread out of their mouths. Her meagre £1,000 grant was withdrawn, but she continued undaunted.

By 1970 she was able to state that if one million unborn babies were exposed to one rad of ionising radiation, 600 of them could be expected to die of cancer within the next ten years. This, with corroboration from America, finally prompted an official edict that foetuses were especially sensitive to radiation.

‘For ages they kept saying no one need pay any attention to the survey. They said the mothers of these dead children were exaggerating. There was no acknowledgement that they had been wrong, no apology for having thrust us down to where we couldn’t even get a grant.’

In 1974 she was edged out of Oxford: ‘I was neither fish, flesh, fowl nor good red herring. And, to crown it all, I was a woman.’ The following year she accepted an invitation to become a consultant on a major investigation for the US government into the health of nuclear workers in Hanford, the weapons complex that had produced plutonium for the Manhattan Project. Her analysis revealed roughly ten times the cancer incidence predicted from A-bomb survivor studies.

Her verdict was anathema: ‘Uncle Sam put his foot down: the gates clanged in our face. Practically everyone who spoke up in America lost their grant.’ However, in time the conclusions were broadly accepted. They suggested adult sensitivity to radiation was in line with the findings of Dr Stewart’s child cancer survey – roughly ten times the official figures.

Her basic deduction about low-level radiation was counter-intuitive:  if the disturbance to a cell is minimal, this will have the maximum cancer effect. ‘The official view is that it’s safer to divide the dose and give it very slowly to a person. On the contrary, it’s rather like crossing the road: it’s the number of times you cross that’s dangerous.’

Didn’t she feel lonely in professional isolation? ‘Sometimes it’s positively awful,’ she admitted. ‘People say, “Who can you recommend?” The answer is there isn’t anybody.’

Humanity lost a fearless champion when Dr Stewart died in 2002, aged 95.

The lesson could not be clearer: any interference in the molecular integrity of a developing infant is to be avoided at all costs. But history is repeating itself. In the British state’s determination to inject children and pregnant women with an untested, experimental ‘vaccine’ containing a genetic component, once again it is following the ethical standards of Dr Josef Mengele.

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Stuart Wavell
Stuart Wavell is a retired journalist.

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