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Rudi Nussbaum and Alice Stewart's Message

Rudi Nussbaum, OR-PSR and Alice Stewart: some reminiscences (June 2006)

During the public debate in the late 1970s about the great benefits to society of nuclear power and statements that fears about danger to public health from the Trojan nuclear power plant were only in people’s uninformed minds, some students in my classes at Portland State University (PSU) asked me, as a nuclear physicist, for my opinion re. the issues raised about health threats from routine and accidental releases of radioactivity.  I had no answers; my interest had been in fundamental science, and I had chalked off the nuclear power debate as a bad mix between engineering and politics, so I had never really studied the underlying scientific issues. I realized that, since I held my students responsible for doing the studying and completing their homework, they have a right to expect the same from me on issues they seek answers about, in particular, since multi-page promotional articles had appeared in newspapers in support of nuclear power by a number of nuclear physics colleagues.  So, while I brought my research in physics to an appropriate endpoint, I started a new research project: what do we really know, based on serious science, about the health impact of exposures to radioactive fallout.  This led me to John Gofman’s and Alice Stewart’s pioneering work, among many others. I was able to invite Alice several times to PSU, in 1984 for a short sabbatical during which we recorded many interviews with her, including one with Karen Steingart, one of the founders of OR-PSR. Through Karen and Charlie Grossman I got interested in and joined PSR in 1984.

Alice Stewart had started her career as a brilliant diagnostician at the Royal Free Hospital in London, then the needs of WWII and her strong social conscience steered Alice into the new field of social medicine (epidemiology).  Her most epoch-making comprehensive case-control study, the Oxford Survey of Childhood Cancers, was started in the 1950s. Covering all of Great Britain, it had discovered that children, whose mothers had been X-rayed during pregnancy for diagnostic purposes, had twice the risk for fatal cancer than unexposed children.  A revolutionary and most unwelcome discovery! Alice’s first published report was a bombshell among radiologists and the entire medical establishment. She was ostracized and maligned for having made suspect a most successful, lucrative and beloved tool (and toy) of the medical profession. Her funds were cut off, and she was no longer invited to medical conferences, even though she was known by then as a brilliant and entertaining speaker.  When in 1974 Alice Stewart was asked by the well-known US public health scientist Thomas Mancuso to consult with him about his equally surprising new study of cancers among workers at the Hanford, WA, plutonium production facilities, and when she subsequently confirmed an excess of cancers in his data, in particular among the older workers, she, together with Thomas Mancuso, had truly become a pariah of the radiation health establishment, a rejection they shared now with the former associate director of the DOE’s Livermore weapons development lab John Gofman and Karl Morgan, the founder of the Health Physics Society, both having publicly warned about the unrecognized dangers of exposure to low-dose radiation.

My interactions with these eminent scientists, but specifically those learning sessions with Alice, who had become a personal friend of my wife Laureen and me, were seminal for my own turn to radiation health science as a third scientific field of study and writing. Although, as an epidemiologist, Alice Stewart was highly skeptical about the value of a health survey among a large group of Hanford Downwinders (DWs), for whom a true control population would not be accessible to us within the bounds of our volunteer efforts, her strong commitment to social justice made her sympathetic toward the DWs’ plight and an appeal by some among them for OR-PSR to check out their health status.  Most physicians, and all state and federal health agencies had treated them for decades with insulting condescension.  In response, PSR members Charles Grossman, Dick Belsey, Bill Morton and I, together with a group of Hanford Downwinders and supporting activists formed Northwest Radiation Health Alliance (NWRHA), and eventually we collected much information from 801 respondents from a three state area around Hanford. A core group of Downwinders and other volunteers, working with Laureen (chief organizer and manager), Charlie Grossman (medical consultant) and me met regularly over a period of about two years to organize the data to make them suitable of computer data input. Analyses of this data base allowed us to publish several peer-reviewed reports in medical and environmental science journals during recent years, legitimizing the DWs’ contention that their cancers and thyroid-related ailments were likely associated with living in a radioactively contaminated environment.  The design, realization and eventual outcomes of our NWRHA project, sponsored by OR-PSR, were documented and summarized in an article “Community-Based Participatory Health Survey of Hanford, WA, Downwinders: A Model for Citizen Empowerment” in Society and Natural Resources, vol. 17, pp. 547-559(2004), available in the library of Portland State University.

Alice Stewart’s scientific and personal life story was so unique and exemplary for a genial, and yet unassuming and deeply humane woman scientist, that Laureen and I, while she was visiting in the mid 1980s, urged her to write an autobiography.  She would not hear of it.  We had just recently read the famous nuclear physicist Freeman Dyson’s book “Disturbing the Universe”, a book we suggested now to Alice, who was a fast and voracious reader.  A few days later she had changed her outright rejection of the idea into suggesting that, maybe, a competent biographer could write her story from a series of interviews.  After several false starts, Alice eventually met the accomplished writer Gayle Greene (Scripps College) who very competently wrote the fascinating story “The Woman Who Knew Too Much: Alice Stewart and the Secrets of Radiation”, Michigan University Press, 1999, with some financial support from the Laureen and Rudi Nussbaum Environmental Contamination and Human Health Fund at the Oregon Community Foundation.

My involvement with OR-PSR and several of its medical scientific members, in particular, with Charlie Grossman, Richard Belsey and Karen Steingart opened doors to numerous worldwide professional contacts and lasting friendships with members of IPPNW in Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Australia.  Last but not least, working with PSR gave me the privilege to get to know and highly esteem the humanity and untiring commitment to social responsibility of PSR’s former Executive Director Del Greenfield, the conscience of the organization.  Shortly thereafter, OR-PSR reached a new level of public involvement and political activism under the inspiring leadership of Catherine Thomasson, the new president-elect of PSR national.

Page Updated August 8, 2016