Gayle Greene’s The Woman Who Knew Too Much: Alice Stewart and the Secret of Radiation is an incredible overview of the life and work of Stewart, whose voice fills the pages and echoes through time to help readers better understand the field of radiology in the twentieth century. Through extensive interviews with the indomitable Alice Stewart herself, and thorough research into the controversial issues of radiation and nuclear power in the twentieth century, Greene tells a story that deserves a place in the history books.
Who was Alice Stewart?
Dr. Alice Mary Stewart (1906-2002) “was a British physician and epidemiologist specializing in social medicine and the effects of radiation on health” (Alice Stewart, Wikipedia). She is known for being the first person to find a link between prenatal x-rays and childhood cancer, the reason that pregnant women today must avoid x-rays. She is also known for her study of the effects of radiation on workers at the Hanford plutonium production plant in Washington. Her work is still cited today by those who argue that low-level doses of radiation have lasting negative effects on our health.
Greene begins with Alice’s parents, particularly her mother, “who became a physician at a time when this was barely a possibility for a woman”. Greene takes us through Alice’s life — the story of their large family, then Alice’s days at Cambridge. Alice was born in 1906, the third of eight children. She went on to study medicine at Cambridge, and shared with Greene the experience of her first physiology lecture:
It was a large room, an auditorium you entered from the rear with a long set of steps descending to the speaker’s podium in the front. I slipped in, hoping to take a seat as close to the back as possible. But when I stepped into the hall and took my first steps, the students, all male, began stomping, slowly and deliberately, in time with my steps. As I took my first step into that room, bang! came the sound of two hundred men stomping their feet in unison. I took my second step and the stomp was repeated. Every step I took, there was this stomp, stomp, stomp. My first instinct was to duck into a seat and disappear, but no — every row was blocked by the men. I was forced down to the front row, where I found three other girls and a Nigerian. These medical students had managed to segregate us out — they weren’t going to have anything to do with women or minority populations. I wasn’t whipped. I was stomped.” Alice Stewart
Although women women had been allowed to study medicine within the past few years, Greene notes, they were still yet to be accepted in the field. Throughout her education, as well as her career, Alice struggled to be recognized by her peers in medicine. Although she would come to be recognized by many as an expert in radiology, she fought sexist stereotypes her entire life — treatment that only served to smother her important, controversial work even further. Take into account the state of the world at her time of research – the budding of nuclear energy, the competition for nuclear weapons – and it seems as though the entire world was willing to turn their gaze away from her argument that these industries were killing their workers from radiation exposure.
Greene does an excellent job exploring this controversy in great detail as she examines the societal obstacles, as well as looking at the way Alice was treated as a woman in her field. As a reader, she is our guide through Alice’s life. But I don’t recommend starting with Greene’s introduction in chapter one. Though I was trained as an English major and always read footnotes, check citations, and never skip the introductions or forewords, I don’t think it’s worth it for The Woman Who Knew Too Much. This biography is much better experienced by diving into the second chapter, where Greene’s wonderful storytelling immediately sweeps you into the story. It almost feels as if she betrayed too much information in the introduction, and you won’t get a good feel for her writing style. However, it does allow the reader to meet Alice Stewart herself and lay the groundwork for how Greene ended up writing her biography in the first place, which is valuable backstory.
Aside from the introduction, the rest of the book is astoundingly intellectual and well-written. Green has put considerable effort into researching Alice Stewart’s work and interviewing the formidable scientist herself. This is an incredibly important biography – Gayle Greene has captured a picture of one of the most important and overlooked female scientists of history, and captured her brilliantly. Alice Stewart shines in Greene’s writing: her voice and personality is memorable, her work is fascinating, and perhaps most important, Greene is careful to put her in the context of culture at the time. Through a mix of reflection and action-filled description, Greene does an excellent job presenting a story worth telling. It’s a documentary and biography in one book.
Why is this worth reading about? Why would Greene have dedicated so much time into getting to know Alice Stewart and sharing her story with readers? The story of Alice Stewart is not only that of a scientist whose work was censored and barred in every way possible by the industry she fought to regulate, it’s the story of a woman who fought hard to be recognized in her field. It’s the story of a female scientist who rose to recognition through hard work, passion, and occasionally, sheer luck.
We need more stories like this to be told. We need more about the women who knew too much, women who were silenced and censored. In the context of our world today, we need women’s stories to be told, now more than ever.
Start with this one.