Book Reviews

ISSN 0256-5004 (Print)

Complete list of book reviews on the AIMS website

AIMS Journal, 2003, Vol 15 No 3

The Woman Who Knew Too Much: Alice Stewart and the Secrets of Radiation by Gayle Greene

Reviewed by Jean Robinson

Published by University of Michigan Press 1999, £13.50 ISBN 0472111078

I feel guilty (so what's new?). I have talked so much about a biography I read recently that I have a whole queue of friends wanting to borrow it, but I can't bear to part with it because I am constantly going back to the many pages I have marked with Post-It notes. It is the story of Dr Alice Stewart, the woman who discovered that X-raying pregnant women could cause the exposed child to develop leukaemia or other cancers years later. She came from a medical family. Her mother had managed to get into medical school in 1901, and did pioneering work with poor children in Sheffield.

Alice herself became a skilled clinician, but was set on a new research path when the child of a close friend, her threeyear- old goddaughter, died of leukaemia at the age of three, and the mother asked her to find out why.

Alice was puzzled because there were two peak age groups for leukaemia-people over 50, which you might expect, and children aged two to four, which was mysterious.

With typical modesty, she commented later that she had only done one clever thing in her life: she remembered that life began at conception. So she asked mothers of children who had leukaemia or cancer a lot of questions about their pregnancies, and asked the same questions of mothers of healthy children. (She was later criticised for believing what mothers said, but she was a mother herself). One difference emerged-they were twice as likely to have had an X-ray.

In fact, she soon realised that leukaemia deaths had gone up because deaths from infection had fallen after the introduction of antibiotics. Many children who had died from pneumonia and other diseases had reduced immunity because they were developing leukaemia. Alice also believed that miscarriages, unexplained stillbirths and sudden infant deaths could be caused in the same way.

An enthralling story follows: how this finding, so unpopular with the Establishment, led to her being pushed out of academic jobs and not getting research grants, and how obstetricians refused to believe it and carried right on giving X-rays.

England was, in fact, the last country to stop irradiating pregnant women. Alice was recruited by groups fighting radiation exposure from nuclear plants, and continued her researching and giving evidence in court cases in the US. She also believed that background radiation was worse than X-rays because exposure began even before conception.

She continued to work well into her 80s, and died only recently. Her story is inspiring and exciting. It wasn't just what she did, but how she did it-bringing together unlikely groups of people and harnessing talents others had not recognised, doing high-quality work on a shoestring and gaining a huge number of admiring friends all over the world. Yet, she always remained straightforward and open and, despite a brilliant brain, her greatest gifts seem to have been her common sense and the ability to communicate in plain speech.

If you can get hold of this book, do read it. It is an inspiring example of how women work when they are at their best, and how much can be achieved against the odds.

Find this book on Amazon

Latest Content

Journal

« »

Book Review: Mothership by Francesc…

AIMS Journal, 2019, Vol 31, No 4 Reviewed for AIMS by Jo Dagustun Mothership By Francesca Segal Chatto and Windus, 2019 288 pages £14.99 ISBN 978-1-78474-269-0 Find this…

Read more

Book Review: Eleven Hours by Pamela…

AIMS Journal, 2019, Vol 31, No 4 Reviewed for AIMS by Emma Mason Eleven Hours By Pamela Erens Published by Tin House Books 2016 ISBN 978-1941040294 176 pages Publisher's…

Read more

Book Review: The Breast Book by Emm…

AIMS Journal, 2019, Vol 31, No 4 Reviewed for AIMS by Clara Hubbard, age 12 The Breast Book: A puberty guide with a difference - it's the when, why and how of breasts By…

Read more

Events

« »

NICE Annual Conference 2020

Registration for the NICE Annual Conference 2020 will open on 22 January 2020. For more details and to register your interest, please visit http://www.niceconference.org.…

Read more

IMUK National Conference 2020

The theme of IMUK's 2020 National Conference 2020 is The Science Behind The Art of Midwifery. Speakers to be announced and tickets will be released soon. Information is a…

Read more

Midwifery Today Conference: “Birthi…

21-25 October 2020 The theme for this year's Midwifery Today conference is Birthing in Love: Everyone’s Right. Classes will include: Clinical sessions such as Hemorrhage,…

Read more

Latest Campaigns

« »

RCOG Consultation on leaflets in As…

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) recently launched a public consultation on two draft documents they have produced. Both documents were in the…

Read more

AIMS' Response to Hull Daily Mail a…

AIMS has responded to the Hull Daily Mail's article entitled, " https://www.hulldailymail.co.uk/news/health/baby-born-bus-stop-shoelace-3571474 ". 26 November 2019 Dear E…

Read more

AIMS Response to NMC Consultation o…

The Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) plays a key role in the ongoing quality assurance and regulation of the maternity services and its staff. Effective and efficient…

Read more