Alice Hamilton Biography (1869-1970)


Alice Hamilton was a pioneer in correcting the medical problems caused by industrialization, awakening the country in the early twentieth century to the dangers of industrial poisons and hazardous working conditions. Through her untiring efforts, toxic substances in the lead, mining, painting, pottery, andrayon industries were exposed and legislation passed to protect workers. Shewas also a champion of worker's compensation laws, and was instrumental in bringing about this type of legislation in the state of Illinois. A medical doctor and researcher, she was the first woman of faculty status at Harvard University, and was a consultant on governmental commissions, both domestic and foreign.

Alice Hamilton was born on February 27, 1869, in New York City, the second offive children born to Montgomery Hamilton, a wholesale grocer, and Gertrude(Pond) Hamilton. Alice Hamilton grew up in secure material surroundings. Hermother encouraged the children to follow their minds and inclinations, and this approach proved beneficial. Her sister, Edith, later became a noted Greekscholar and the editor of well-known books on Greek myths and literature. Alice was educated at home and for a few years at a private school.

Hamilton's decision to pursue a career in medicine came, in part, because itwas one of the few professional fields open to women of her day. She earned amedical degree from the University of Michigan in 1893, without having completed an undergraduate degree and taking surprisingly few science courses. Realizing that she wanted to pursue research rather than medical practice, Hamilton went on to do further studies both in the United States and abroad: from1895-1896 at Leipzig and Munich; 1896-1897 at Johns Hopkins; and 1902 in Paris at the Pasteur Institute. In 1897 she accepted a post as professor of pathology at the Women's Medical College at Northwestern University in Chicago, and when it closed in 1902, she became a professor of pathology at the MemorialInstitute for Infectious Diseases, a position which she held until 1909.

In Chicago Hamilton became a resident of Hull House, the pioneering settlement designed to give care and advice to the poor of Chicago. Here, under the influence of Jane Addams, the founder of Hull House, Hamilton saw the effects of poverty up close. Investigating a typhoid epidemic in Chicago, she was instrumental in reorganizing the city's health department and in drawing attention to the role flies played in spreading the epidemic. After reading Dangerous Trades by Sir Thomas Oliver, Hamilton began her life-long mission to treat the excesses of industrialization. Unlike other countries such as Germany and England, the United States had no industrial safety laws at the time. During her time at Hull House, Hamilton investigated the steel industry and others for occupationally caused lead poisoning.

In 1910 Hamilton was chosen by the governor of Illinois to head up his Commission on Occupational Diseases, and her research and investigation into the dangers of lead and phosphorous paved the way to the state's first worker's compensation laws. In 1911 she took up similar, non-salaried, duties for the federal government, becoming an investigator of industrial poisons for the fledgling Department of Labor. During World War I, Hamilton investigated the highexplosives industry, discovering that nitrous fumes were responsible for a great number of supposedly natural deaths.

In 1919 she became the first female faculty member of Harvard University as assistant professor of industrial medicine, but was denied access to the malebastion of the Harvard Club and to participation in graduation ceremonies. Hamilton kept up her international contacts, serving as the only woman delegateon the League of Nations Health Commission to the U.S.S.R. in 1924, as wellas acting as a consultant to the International Labor Office in Geneva, Switzerland. In 1925, she published her Industrial Poisons in the United States, the first text on the subject, and became one of the few worldwide authorities in the area of industrial toxins. At this same time, she was also instrumental in influencing the surgeon general to investigate the dangerous effects of tetraethyl lead and radium.

Hamilton retired from Harvard in 1935, but not from active public life. She became a consultant in the U.S. Labor Department's Division of Labor Standardsand from 1937-1938 conducted an investigation of the viscose rayon industry.Hamilton demonstrated the toxicity involved in rayon processes, and these findings that led to Pennsylvania's first compensation law for occupational diseases. In her later years, Hamilton, who never married, wrote an autobiography and continued to be active politically, advancing causes of social justiceand pacifism. She died of a stroke at her home in Hadlyme, Connecticut, in 1970. Hamilton was 101 at the time of her death, and had been the recipient ofhonorary degrees from around the world for her work in revealing the dangersof industrial poisons.

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