top of page
  • kaysmithblum

All Things Greene

Updated: Jul 2

A chat with Gayle Greene_author of The Woman Who Knew Too Much

 

I’d been serving on the editorial committee for an anthology of historical fiction short stories for several months. As astonishing things so often happen, Carolyn Korsmeyer, a co-editor on Feisty Deeds (launching this Friday,  June 8th!)*, mentioned she had recently acquired a copy of a biography she thought might be good fodder for my work-in-progress: The Woman Who Knew Too Much.


Dr. Alice Stewart, British health phycisist, 1998


Carolyn – who grew up in Oak Ridge, TN—the ‘other’ plutonium factory town—explained that Stewart was a renowned health scientist in Britain, and had created the quintessential database, tracking the health effects of runaway, unregulated industry (think cancer).


“Do you know who Alice Stewart was?” Carolyn asked via email.


Carolyn Korsmeyer, Author, Co-editor Feisty Deeds Anthology


It didn’t take me long to track down a copy of Greene’s definitive biography of Stewart. A can’t-put-down volume, page after page inspires, amazes, and makes one shake their head at the establishment that continued to throw obstacles in the path of Stewart’s quiet, but powerful groundbreaking work.




 Stewart mapped disease after disease in the broader populace by harnessing the newly formed British National Healthcare system data. Stewart set out to find the cause for childhood leukemia. Her revolutionary idea? “Ask the mothers,” intuiting that the mothers of critically ill children would remember things about their pregnancies that doctors had forgotten.  The British Medical Research Committee turned down Alice’s request for funds to support her survey. "Ask the Moms? What do they know?”


But Alice got a small grant from another source, and moved ahead with her study. Her questionaire cast a wide net methodically questioning hundreds of mothers:  What did you eat? Did you take vitamins? Did you have an obstetric X-rays? The responses linked prenatal X-rays to not just leukemia, but all cancers—a remarkable, life-changing discovery.


Stewart’s work, linking radiation exposure to cancer, was published in 1956 and 1958 in the British Medical Journal and met with skepticism, criticized for being 'retrospective' and therefore prone to ‘recall bias.’ Stewart, being a mother herself, suspected that women who had lost a child would have a more vivid memory of their pregnancy than most.


 The Medical Research Council commissioned an alternative study. One that used a much smaller sampling of the population. It was then that Richard Doll, who would become Stewart’s nemesis, would rear his head. His study, of course, concluded there was no link.



Sir Richard Doll, photo credit Wikipedia


But, in 1962, Brian MacMohan studied a cohort of over 730,000 women having children between 1947 and 1954 in the U.S. Rather than relying on memory, MacMohan searched medical records for the use of X-rays during the pregnancies of the mothers in question. His study found the incidence of cancer in children subject to prenatal X-rays was forty percent higher than those who were not, vindicating Alice’s work.

 

Both MacMohan and Stewart’s findings were codified in public policy prohibiting such practices a decade or so later. But the Medical Research Council never awarded Stewart another grant, and back in England, Doll became increasingly and publicly dismissive of her work, calling it “slap-dash” in a television documentary aired in 1996.


Despite being sidelined in the epidemiological arena, Stewart continued to study small-dose radiation.  Work that would become pivotal for Downwinders.


After devouring The Woman Who Knew Too Much (University of Michigan Press, 1999, 2017), I contacted Gayle Greene, the talented former literary critic, prolific non-fiction author, and Professor Emerita of Scripps College. She graciously agreed to a chat in January 2024.


We dove into Alice’s upbringing, and how that shaped her. Greene spoke of Stewart’s parents, both physicians, noting that Alice’s mother received her medical license in the second generation of female doctors. Both parents practiced preventative medicine, a rarity at the time, but an approach that stuck with Alice. Medicine was the Stewart family profession and Greene’s father was a doctor so she had a unique insight into Alice’s path.


Gayle Greene and KSB on Zoom, January 2024


Greene quoted Alice with a knowing look via Zoom: “It takes two generations to make a person.”


I asked, “What drew you to Alice’s story?”


“When I turned fifty, I realized I didn’t want to be a literary critic anymore “No one reads literary criticism,” Greene said, with a wry smile. She had a friend who was a public health advocate. They began a book about chronic disease, which eventually led to another project on cancer and the environment.


Alice Stewart happened to be in Berkeley visiting a friend, and Greene, a graduate of Berkeley, was there too.  Greene arranged an interview with Stewart for a chapter in her work-in-progress knowing that Stewart was a “world champion on radiation and cancer.”


Alice Stewart, 1988


In December of 1992, Greene had clipped an article from the front page of the New York Times, describing Alice asamong the most authoritative critics of the American nuclear weapons program.”  Beneath the headline was an image of a wispy white-haired old woman. Says Greene, “Alice looked like ‘everybody’s granny.” But this granny had acquired the Hanford data, no small feat in 1975.


In their initial interview, Stewart moved through multiple topics so quickly, that Greene had a hard time understanding Alice’s full story, but Greene was sufficiently “intrigued.”  


“She’s a charmer,” Greene recounts, via Zoom, explaining that Alice’s stories were peppered with literary references, possibly a result of her long affair with poet William Empson (who died in 1984). Greene notes, “I read Empson as a grad student.”


Greene had heard a biography was in the works, and asked Alice if she could look at it, hoping to understand a bit more about Alice’s story.


“It’s a shambles,” Stewart replied.  Greene offered to help. “Really?” said Alice.


Greene remembers thinking in the moment (1994), that this was perhaps a “dangerous thing” to offer. Greene didn't need another project. But Greene grew up knowing “nuclear was a disaster.” Her mother had signed Linus Pauling’s petition that put nuclear testing underground in 1963. So


Greene looks pensive, her face a study as she recounts her memory of what happened next.


Gayle Greene on Zoom, January 2024


 Alice sent her the manuscript and it was a mess. “But Alice had a Pied Piper effect on people,” Greene intones. “Folks wanted to follow her.”  And Greene felt a kinetic connection to Alice.


“Emotionally I knew I wanted to write the book, [especially] once I saw the mangled biography.” In July, just a month after meeting Alice, Greene dove in, abandoning the other project. She took on the Stewart biography despite her full-time teaching position and being half a world away from Stewart.



Greene recalled, “Usually writing is lonely—you sit in a room and write—then try to push the book which no one wants.” Greene’s eyes light up. “But this book – people wanted this book!”


Several other journalists had tried to write a book about Alice but got discouraged by the depth and breadth of Stewart’s life and multiple careers. Stewart—by age 88—had three. Each was fairly complicated and complex work.

 

But the most exciting part of Stewart’s life began at age 70, with the call from Dr. Thomas Mancuso. He had been appointed by the US Atomic Energy Commission study the health of nuclear workers. In 1974, he invited Alice and George Kneale, Alice’s long-time colleague, to come look at the Hanford data. Alice flew to Pittsburg to join Mancuso. The result was the Stewart-Kneale-Mancuso analysis that revealed over ten times the cancer risk than originally predicted from A-bomb survivor studies. The explosive (no pun intended) results landed Alice in the middle of an international controversy.


Within months, the AEC cutoff funding on Mancuso's thirteen year grant and confiscated the data. https://www.ippnw.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/03/PSRQV1N1Cassel.pdf


In a compelling narrative, the latter half of The Woman Who Knew Too Much (TWWKTM) relays much of this final chapter of Stewart’s life. Traveling back and forth to Pittsburg where Mancuso worked, and also testifying in Scotland (where Chernobyl fallout had occurred). Stewart, well into her 70s, attained an iconic status on the witness stand for her unshakable demeanor. (See Roger Milne’s comments, page 170, TWWKTM)


The biography took Gayle Greene years to write. Greene flew ‘across the pond’ four times a year for six years to meet with Stewart on her home turf in England, a transformative experience for Greene.


Greene had been a visiting scholar at Cambridge in 1978, her classmates mostly members of the British upper class. But, in 1986, she traveled Britain with a former boyfriend taking in county fairs, mingling with  working-class populations (think peasants of the old days). Toward the end of their tour, they ventured to Scotland and northern Wales. The Chernobyl rain cloud drifted over and Greene and her boyfriend became unwitting Chernobyl Downwinders. (Greene, a milk drinker, suffers from Hashimoto's disease, and her boyfriend died of three kinds of cancer.)


Writing Stewart’s story opened Greene to a different aspect of British life. Alice’s England had Sirs, and Vicars and Barons.


Author Gayle Greene with Alice Stewart, 1990s, photo credit GG


“Like stepping into Masterpiece Theater,” Greene laughs. “People from another century almost.”

Scripps College paid for many of her trips and allowed her to present papers upon her return from each trip. It was during this time that Rudi Nussbaum made contact. A holocaust survivor, and a nuclear physicist who studied the Hanford Downwinders, Nussbaum lived with his wife Laureen in Portland.



Laureen and Rudi Nussbaum, photo credit The Times of Israel


Greene recalls his phone call shortly after she had taken on Alice’s story. “This deep male voice with a heavy German accent comes over the line.” Greene explains her initial reaction was concern, but that quickly dissipated. “He said he’d like to give me twenty thousand dollars to support my research and writing.”


Greene was stunned and initially demurred. But upon reflection, she realized she had copious expenses Scripps was not covering. Rudi and his wife, Laureen, became good friends with Greene. The gift proved pivotal in Greene’s work.


Alice was super social, with lots of friends and family, many of whom Greene met. Stewart’s family and extended network were all very supportive. Greene shoots me a grin, “Such an important story, and what better, more fun project than Alice!”


“Alice was modest, never blew her own horn,” Greene continues, saying she quoted Alice often in TWWKTM. “Letting Alice come through.”


“She spoke in this Oxford-sculpted English, always finished her sentences. Americans don’t do that. I was fascinated by her language.”

 

Greene notes that Alice saw her work on both fetal X-rays and small-dose radiation codified in public policy during her lifetime. “But the British press, who had accepted Greene’s manuscript, became nervous about the inclusion of material regarding Richard Doll and withdrew. So, Alice never saw her biography published in her homeland.


Greene shakes her head, “So sad.”


I ask Greene how writing about Alice informed her other projects, and perhaps her life. Greene turns serious. “Alice taught me how to grow old.” She explains, “Always have a project, one with meaning.”



Gayle Greene on Zoom, January 2024


“And the way Alice dealt with failure and criticism...” Greene gives more details about the insults Alice endured, second-hand reports of Richard Doll bad-mouthing her, creating a chilly climate among folks who had been colleagues.


But Alice’s response to the snubs was to quote Thackery. Greene explains. “There’s a story – at a christening – the fairy godmother turns up and wishes the baby a little misfortune. Enough to toughen the child up." The underlying meaning of Thackery’s story? “If you don’t suffer a bit of misfortune you don’t develop strength.”


"But in epidemiology, proof is very hard to come by.” Greene pauses. “I think he (Doll) [thwarted] her because he knew Alice was right, and she had the courage to follow her convictions.” Doll, patrician-looking with white hair – “like a scientist from central casting,” Greene offers.  “Very gracious in person.  He’s credited with finding the link between smoking and cancer.” Greene shoots another wry smile. “But Alice said, 'No way. He was just a young man put on a committee with many others.’”


We both shake our heads. Greene continues, “Doll believed an epidemiological study could be completed in five years of research, and get out. But epidemiology doesn’t work like that. Twenty years at a minimum, but cancer? Up to fifty.”


I busily scribble notes. “Alice went back twenty years on Hanford data and her work resulted, eventually, in compensation for workers in the nuclear industry who incurred cancer after being on the job.”


Greene smiles, “Alice said, it helps in this field to be long-lived.” Greene put a finger to her chin. “I think Doll’s hostility grew when the data showed Alice to be right.”


But it took a lifetime and then some to get there. Greene remarks how struck she was by Stewart’s toughness.


I ask, “How did your experience with Alice relate to your next book?”


“My mother was failing when I was working with Alice. They were the same age, but my mother was an unhappy housewife. I was talking nonstop about Alice…but if my mother was jealous, she didn’t show it.”


Greene looks pensive. “Maybe she thought I was rescuing this amazing woman from obscurity. I’m not sure, but in the last year of writing about Alice my mother died, and I,” Greene pauses. “I was ripped apart by her death. I wasn’t sure I could keep going on the project.”


“But, I went back to England, and the spark reignited. I finished the Alice book a few years later.”


Greene’s next book, Missing Persons, poured out of her. Centered on the loss of Greene’s mother, it’s a deep dive into mourning and how one mourns, especially in an unhappy family. But it also delves into her ‘lost’ home. “The “valley of hearts delight” became the “valley of dollars,” Greene notes. She grew up in what is now Silicon Valley.




“I was mourning California too, and realized that I knew far more about Alice than I knew about my mother.” But penning Missing Persons made Greene realize how fortunate she’d been to have her mother, rather than Alice, as a mother. “Alice was wedded to her work in a way that was not so great for her children…” Greene says, before adding. “Alice was one pole of me. My mother was the other.”


Greene began writing Missing Persons, while finishing TWWKTM. She thinks it made the Alice book better, less academic. She added more narrative, and did the same with Insomnia. “All my books are related – interdependent – co-influential – whatever the word is.”


Greene thought she was finished with Alice's story, but it kept unfolding, even after her death.


Stewart died before Doll. Greene recalls, “No one could believe it, but he came to Alice’s funeral.


Richard Doll died two years later, in 2005. And then it came out. Doll had been ‘on the take’ from Monsanto and the US Chemical Manufacturing Association.” Green pauses. “To the tune of 1000 pounds a day.” She shakes her head and adds, “[They paid him] To exonerate Ancient Orange. And to exonerate vinyl chloride from causing liver cancer.”**  


Greene decided it might be the moment to use some papers in her basement. She penned “The Making of Scientific Knowledge,” really digging into what had gone on between Doll and Stewart.

And then, the accident at Fukushima made it even more relevant.


Greene speaks briefly of her current project: public education. She found the same principle at work in education as she’d seen in the nuclear industry: oligarchs draining profits from the educational system; turning K-12 into a cash cow for standardized testing; “reform” measures by men who hadn’t a clue how education works. Diane Ravitch, Founder and President of The Network for Public Education, has endorsed Greene’s book, Immeasurable Outcomes.



We talk a bit about the relationship between the student and teacher, the foundation of learning. Something we both feel strongly about protecting. We lament the privatization of public resources, robbing the public coffers for private fortunes. I can’t help but think about the money being spent on cleanup at Hanford and the huge profits that are being taken. Billions spent on a vitrification process that has not produced a verifiable cleanup process.


I tell her my book has a hopeful ending. We speak of sparks of hope. Mackenzie Scott’s enlightened approach to giving, and Alice’s stick-to-it-ness against great odds.


Greene tells me she has recently turned eighty, and celebrated the milestone with a Zoom gathering. She sent out virtual invitations to her closest pals, asking them to be prepared to present one anecdote. Something that perhaps she wouldn’t know about herself.


Laureen Nussbaum, Rudi’s widow told a the tale of how Alice Stewart had come directly to Portland, Oregon from Berkeley, that June when she and Gayle had first met. Laureen recounted how Stewart exclaimed, “I have found my biographer!”



Laureen Nussbaum, photo credit The Holocaust Center for Humanity


Gayle interrupted Laureen, saying, “Oh, no. That can’t be right. I had not committed to writing it yet, only asked for the previous manuscript.”


But Laureen Nussbaum reiterated, “No, Alice knew. We celebrated her finding you!”


I'm glad I found Greene too.


 

Final note: Follow Gayle Greene on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/gayle.greene.526

She’s taking on aging and we all do that right? For more, see gaylegreene.org


*

 

 

 

33 views2 comments

2 Comments


taorenkai
Jun 04

Loved this piece, Kay. I was amazed at your talk with Richard Rhodes, but this one went even deeper--like a two-fer: we got a mini-biography of the pioneering Alice Stewart while getting to know the talented Gayle Greene. Particularly enjoyed how Gayle shared (and compared) her relationship with her own mother and the one she shared with Stewart. Well done!

Like
kaysmithblum
Jun 04
Replying to

Thanks! I'm loving all these conversations...so rich in history and full of wisdom.

Like
bottom of page