Alice Hamilton has fascinated me for 30 years. But who knows about her? She’s been pictured on the 55-cent stamp, it’s true, yet she’s still on that long list of women who come under the heading “Remarkable but Little-Known.” That’s why I’ve chosen her for this post in celebration of Women’s History Month.
Hamilton’s specialty, back in the early part of the 20th century, was industrial medicine (a new field whose mission was to prevent factories from poisoning their workers). But what I remember most clearly from my reading of Barbara Sicherman’s marvelous Alice Hamilton: A Life in Letters (1984) is the petty matter of the football tickets.
By 1919, when Hamilton was hired as the first woman professor at Harvard Medical School (40 years before the university accepted women as undergraduates), she was world-renowned as a researcher in industrial medicine.
That expertise qualified her to hold the position of assistant professor of industrial medicine—a great breakthrough for a woman. But it did not qualify her to receive the football tickets that were issued to the other professors, or allow her admission to the Harvard Club, or let her sit on the platform at graduation. Those small humiliations were simply a sign of the times: Acknowledgment of a woman’s expertise had to be firmly tied to a reaffirmation of her second-class status.
Hamilton, born in 1869, trained in medicine at the University of Michigan, then interned at Northwestern Hospital for Women and Children in Minneapolis and the New England Hospital for Women and Children in Boston. Her scientific training came in laboratories at the Universities of Michigan, Leipzig, Munich, and Johns Hopkins. She moved into the career that would make her a world leader when she was in her forties. She’d tried learning and practicing various kinds of medicine and science, and she’d lived (and would continue to live part time) at Hull House, the leading settlement house in the United States, founded by fellow reformer Jane Addams. Despite her many personal and professional advantages (she came from a wealthy family) and her connections, she found her true calling only after many years.
That calling, starting in 1910, was researching industrial poisons and inspecting U.S. factories for hazardous conditions—a problem barely acknowledged in the United States. Hamilton scornfully describes the fatuousness of U.S. doctors, factory owners, and government authorities in “The Poisonous Occupations in Illinois,” a chapter of her autobiography, Exploring the Dangerous Trades, that you can read online here. “In those countries [Germany, Britain, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Spain] industrial medicine was a recognized branch of the medical sciences; in my own country it did not exist. When I talked to my medical friends about the strange silence on this subject in American medical magazines and textbooks, I gained the impression that here was a subject tainted with Socialism or with feminine sentimentality for the poor.”
And what dangers Americans in authority were ignoring! In the 1890s, she writes, workers endured “carbon-monoxide gassing in the great steel mills, painters [were] disabled by lead palsy, pneumonia and rheumatism [flourished] among the men in the stockyards.” In the matchbook companies, workers risked the dreaded “phossy jaw, which comes . . . from breathing the fumes of white or yellow phosphorus, which penetrates into a defective tooth and down through the roots to the jawbone, killing the tissue cells which then become the prey of suppurative germs from the mouth, and abscesses form. The jaw swells and the pain is intense, for the suppuration is held in by the tight covering of the bone and cannot escape, except through a surgical operation or through a fistula boring to the surface.”
The U.S. government hired Hamilton to conduct important studies; she went to international congresses and led major organizations. Hamilton’s most important work involved the study of lead poisoning in industry. Here, her autobiography paints a portrait of a 36-year-old lead-poisoned man: “I saw him in the hospital, a skeleton of a man, looking almost twice his age, his limbs soft and flabby, his muscles wasted. He was extremely emaciated, his color was a dirty grayish yellow, his eyes dull and expressionless. He lay in an apathetic condition, rousing when spoken to and answering rationally but slowly, with often an appreciable delay, then sinking back into apathy.”
Hamilton engaged in “shoe-leather” epidemiology, visiting workers at their homes and in hospitals and inspecting factories in order to provide detailed documentation of deaths and illnesses resulting from exposures on the job. She conducted studies for the federal government and published the first American textbook on industrial poisons. “Her findings were so scientifically persuasive that they caused sweeping reforms, both voluntary and regulatory, to improve the health of workers,” notes an article on the website of the Centers for Disease Control.
And as she pioneered as a public-health scientist she engaged in political activity ranging from World War I pacifism to fights for a federal child labor law to support for women’s suffrage. Having studied the needs of women workers in industry, she opposed the Equal Rights Amendment (she lived to be 101), which she feared would strip working women of needed protections on the job, especially since she’d seen women exploited in industry. She supported America’s entry into World War II, having seen the rise of Nazism in Europe, and late in life opposed America’s military interventions in Vietnam.
Alice Hamilton’s fascinating life and important work have been featured in a young-adult book, The Workers’ Detective: A Story About Dr. Alice Hamilton, and she was one of the nine women featured in Karenna Gore Schiff’s recent book Lighting the Way: Nine Women Who Changed Modern America. The U.S. Postal Service placed her image on a 55-cent stamp in 1995. But few of her biographers can sum up her life as well as she did in her 1943 autobiography. I think it is worth leaving the last words to her: “It [her research on lead poisoning’ was pioneering, exploration of an unknown field. No young doctor nowadays can hope for work as exciting and rewarding. Everything I discovered was new and most of it was really valuable.”
Thank you, Dr. Alice Hamilton!