Alice Hamilton and Labor Safety


Alice Hamilton was a pioneer in the field of toxicology, studying occupational illnesses and the dangerous effects of industrial metals and chemical compounds on the human body. In her quest to uncover industrial toxins, Hamilton roamed dangerous parts of hazardous workplaces, descended into mines, and coaxed her way into factories reluctant to admit her.

Hamilton was born in 1869, in New York City, and raised in Fort Wayne, Indiana, USA; in 1893, she received her PhD degree in Medicine from the University of Michigan. Hamilton studied bacteriology and pathology at universities in Munich and Leipzig; when she returned to the US, she continued her postgraduate studies at the Johns Hopkins University Medical School. Later, she moved to Chicago, where she became a Professor of Pathology at the Woman’s Medical School of Northwestern University.

Soon after moving to Chicago, she became increasingly interested in the problems workers faced, especially occupational injuries and illnesses. The study of “industrial medicine”, which is the illnesses caused by certain jobs, had become increasingly important since the Industrial Revolution of the late 19th century had led to new dangers in the workplace.

In 1907, Hamilton began exploring existing literature from abroad, noticing that industrial medicine was not being studied much in America. She set out to change this, and in 1908 published her first article on the topic. In the same year, Hamilton was appointed by the governor of Illinois to the newly-formed Illinois Commission on Occupational Diseases, the first such investigative body in the United States.

For the next decade, she investigated a range of issues for a variety of State and federal health committees. She focused her explorations on occupational toxic disorders, examining the effects of substances; such as aniline dyes, carbon monoxide, mercury, tetraethyl lead, radium, benzene, carbon disulfide, and hydrogen sulfide gases. Her work on the manufacture of white lead and lead oxide, as a special investigator for the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, is considered a landmark study.

In 1919, Hamilton was hired as Assistant Professor in a new Department of Industrial Medicine at Harvard Medical School, making her the first woman appointed to the faculty there in any field. Her appointment was hailed by the New York Tribune with the headline: “A Woman on Harvard Faculty—The Last Citadel Has Fallen”. Her own comment was: “Yes, I am the first woman on the Harvard faculty—but not the first one who should have been appointed!” Hamilton still faced discrimination as a woman, and was excluded from social activities and ceremonies.

From 1924 to 1930, Hamilton served as the only female member of the League of Nations Health Committee. She published the first American textbook on the subject of Industrial Hygiene in the United States, in 1925, followed by the textbook Industrial Toxicology in 1934. After her retirement from Harvard in 1935, Hamilton served as a medical consultant to the US Division of Labor Standards, and retained her connections to Harvard as professor emerita. Her autobiography “Exploring the Dangerous Trades” was published in 1943.



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