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Alice Hamilton, 1893

Alice Hamilton in 1893, the year she graduated from medical school. PDH at Smithsonian Institution and en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons.

To celebrate National Women Physician Day, we decided to highlight the career of Dr. Alice Hamilton, one of the most inspiring women physicians in the field of occupational health.  Health concerns remain one of the significant problems in the work environment. Many are still unaware of the contaminants that can make them sick.  Dr. Alice Hamilton made it her life’s quest to educate people about the harmful effect of the workplace environment.

Alice Hamilton was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1869.  She was the second born of five siblings.  Her childhood was spent among a close-knit, extended family who had inherited wealth from her prestigious grandfather, Allen Hamilton.  She was homeschooled and completed her early education at a finishing school.

Privilege did not make Alice Hamilton selfish, and she aspired to provide some type of useful service to the world.  As a teenager she had decided to become a doctor.  She had a slight problem in that she had avoided learning science.  She was tutored by the local high school teacher and made up the deficit in her education.

In the 1890s, according to the census, there were about 4,500 female doctors in the United States.  It was extremely unusual for a woman to be a doctor but Hamilton persevered.  In 1893 she received her Doctor of Medicine degree from the University of Michigan Medical School and interned at several hospitals after that.

Alice Hamilton with her sister Edith traveled to Europe to study bacteriology and pathology.   For several years they lived and studied abroad.  Alice was welcomed in Frankfurt but rejected in Berlin.  She experienced prejudice against women when the two sisters studied at universities in Munich and Leipzig.  Unfortunately, this experience would not be the last brush with discrimination.

After returning to the United States, she became a professor of pathology at the Women’s Medical School of Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois.  Having a desire to be of service, soon after moving to Chicago, she became a resident of Hull House.

Hull House, a settlement house, was founded by social reformer Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr.   A settlement house had a grand goal of bringing the poor and the rich of society together in physical and social proximity.  As higher education opened to women, young female graduates brought their energy to the settlement movement.

Alice lived side by side with the poor residents of the community at Hull House.

She grew fond of the people and became increasingly concerned about the problems many of the workers faced, especially occupational injuries and illnesses. She is quoted as saying “Life in a settlement does several things to you. Among others, it teaches you that education and culture have little to do with real wisdom, the wisdom that comes from life experiences.”

The study of industrial medicine has become more and more important since the Industrial Revolution of the late nineteenth century.  Hamilton soon discovered industrial medicine was not being studied much in America.  Hamilton published her first article on the topic in 1908.

In 1910, newly formed Occupational Diseases Commission of Illinois, the first such investigative body in the United States, appointed Hamilton to their commission.  She investigated a range of health issues for a variety of state and federal committees for the next decade.  Hamilton and the commission were critical components of the first workers’ compensation laws in Illinois in 1911, in Indiana in 1915.  Other states paid attention and started to create occupational disease laws. The new laws were the first of their kind and employers were required to implement occupational safety precautions to protect workers.

Hamilton became the United States leading authority on lead poisoning in 1916 and spoke publicly about the problem.   She is quoted as saying:

There can be no intelligent control of the lead danger in industry unless it is based on the principle of keeping the air clear from dust and fumes.

Harvard noticed, and in January 1919 Hamilton became an assistant professor in the newly-formed Department of Industrial Medicine.  She was the first woman appointed to the Harvard University facility in ANY field.

New York times announced her appointment with the headline:  “A Woman on Harvard Faculty—The Last Citadel Has Fallen—The Sex Has Come into Its Own.”  Her rebuttal to this headline was: “Yes, I am the first woman on the Harvard faculty—but not the first one who should have been appointed!

Being a progressive woman of her time, Hamilton faced gender discrimination.

She was continually excluded from social activities, could not enter the Harvard Union, could not attend the Faculty Club, and did not receive football tickets. The worst thing was Hamilton was not allowed to march in the university’s commencement ceremonies with her male faculty counterparts.

Dr. Alice Hamilton

Dr. Alice Hamilton, pioneer of occupational medicine in the United States. PDH at Smithsonian Institution and en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons.

In 1925, Hamilton testified at a Public Health Service conference on the use of lead in gasoline.  She warned of the danger it posed to people and the environment and especially children.  Nevertheless, at the prompting of big business, leaded gasoline was allowed.  By 1988, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that 68 million children suffered toxic exposure from lead in leaded fuels over the previous 60 years.

Hamilton called it “shoe-leather epidemiology.”  She had a process of making personal visits to factories, conducting interviews with workers, and compiling details of diagnosed poisoning cases and utilizing the emerging laboratory science of toxicology.  Like a modern-day detective, Hamilton roamed the dangerous parts of urban America, descended into mines, and manipulated her way into factories reluctant to admit her.

Hamilton was the pioneer of occupational epidemiology and industrial hygiene. She created the specialized field of industrial medicine in the United States. Her findings from her research were well written and scientifically persuasive.  Her research influenced massive health reforms that changed laws and improved the health of workers.

Hamilton’s best-known research included studies on:

  • Workers getting sick through contact with the explosive trinitrotoluene (TNT).
  • Steelworkers suffering carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • Hatters suffering mercury poisoning which caused mental illness and spawned the phrase “mad as a hatter.”
  • Jackhammer operators suffering debilitating hand conditions.
  • Limestone cutters suffering spastic anemia also is known as “dead fingers.
  • Tombstone carvers suffering a high incidence of pulmonary tuberculosis.
  • Matchstick factory workers suffering phosphorus necrosis of the jaw commonly called “phossy jaw.”

She retired in 1935 in a quaint home in Connecticut.  Hamilton enjoyed leisure activities such as reading, sketching, and writing, as well as spending time among her family and friends.  TIME magazine named her “Woman of the Year” in medicine in 1956.  In 1995, the US Postal Service created a commemorative stamp in her honor in 1995.  She died in 1970 at the age of 101 after an incredible, career in medicine.

Alice Hamilton was a tenacious researcher and pioneer for protecting the worker from toxic substances in the workplace. Three months after her death, the Occupational Safety and Health Act to improve workplace safety in the United States was passed by the U.S. Congress.




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