When Dr. Alice Stewart, the great epidemiologist, and her colleague George Kneale visited Washington, D.C., they would stay with us at the Butternut House. I relished their visits and they became part of our family, sharing meals and playing games.
Unlike Alice, who was outgoing and comfortable around all sorts of people, George was extremely shy and taciturn. In the midst of the usual commotion at our large dinner table with our children and housemates, George, always wearing a coat and tie, would sit in silence, seemingly lost in his own world.
George was the son of Alice’s colleagues at Oxford and by his early teens had begun working with Alice as a student in 1962 before earning his honors degrees in statistics and chemistry at Oxford. Within a few years, and with Alice’s guidance, George’s genius was recognized by his peers as his work accumulated in prestigious journals.
By 1970, Stewart and Kneale reported a landmark finding in the Lancet, a preeminent medical journal, from the Oxford Survey of Childhood Cancers (OSCC) initiated by Dr. Stewart in 1955. They found that a single pelvimetric X-Ray given during pregnancy would double the risk of childhood cancer — the leading cause of death by disease for children in this country.
By this time, it was difficult to challenge this finding since their effort evolved into the equivalent of an enormous prospective survey — a 15-year follow-up of more than 2 million live births. Despite constant efforts to defund this study by the British nuclear establishment, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration kept it alive and cited it as a key reason for discouraging X-rays of pregnant women.
It was from George that I learned the essence of their partnership as we sat one afternoon, alone in the living room in an accustomed silence.
After a while I tried to break the ice and asked George how he would describe his relationship with Alice. Several more minutes passed and George continued to stare into space, as if I wasn’t there. Suddenly in a surprising deep booming voice he solemnly declared, “My job is to disprove Dr. Stewart’s theories.” We then retreated back into quiet.
They were a perfect team, with Alice applying her decades of knowledge as a practicing physician to understand the patterns of disease in large groups, while George used his great mathematical gifts to find flaws in her assumptions. This is at the heart of how science should work.