Distinguished Women of Past and Present


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Alice Hamilton

From: United States: Illinois, Massachusetts, New York
Fields: Education, Health and Medicine
Key Words/Phrases: founder of occupational medicine and toxicology, professor
Alice Hamilton, the founder of occupational medicine, first woman professor at Harvard Medical School and the first woman to receive the Lasker Award in public health, was born in 1869 in New York, New York, U.S.A and raised in Indiana. She was educated at home and at Miss Porter's School, a finishing school in Farmington, Connecticut. She then attended Fort Wayne College of Medicine in Fort Wayne, Indiana and continued at the medical department of the University of Michigan from which she received her medical degree in 1893. Following interneships in Minneapolis and Boston, she traveled to Germany with her sister, Edith Hamilton, and together they attended the universities of Munich and Leipzich for a year. Neither university had allowed female students before, so Hamilton was permitted to attend lectures in bacteriology and pathology on the condition she make herself inconspicuous to male students and professors.

Following her return to the United States, she did research at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. In 1897 she was appointed professor of pathology at the Women's Medical School of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and in 1902 she accepted a position of a bacteriologist at the Memorial Institute for Infectious Diseases in Chicago, Illinois. Dr. Hamilton moved into Jane Addams's Hull House, where she she was exposed to progressive thinkers who often gravitated there, and to the needs of the poor for whom Hull House provided services. During her stay at the Hull House, she established medical education classes and a well-baby clinic.

In the typhoid fever epidemic in Chicago in 1902, she made a connection between improper sewage disposal and the role of flies in transmitting the disease and her findings led to reorganization of the Chicago Health Department. She then noted that the health problems of many of the immigrant poor were due to unsafe conditions and noxious chemicals, especially lead dust, to which they were being exposed in the course of their employment. At the time there were no laws regulating safety at work and employers routinely fired sick workers and replaced them with new ones looking for jobs.

Dr. Hamilton became director of the Occupational Disease Commission when it was created by the governor of Illinois in 1910. It was the first such commission in the world. As a result of its findings, several worker's compensation laws were passed in Illinois. They introduced a new notion that workers were entitled to compensation for health impairment and injuries sustained on the job. Following the report on workers' compensation she gave to an international meeting in Brussels, Hamilton was asked by the U.S. commissioner of labor to replicate her research on a national level but was not offered a salary. She looked at the hazards posed by exposure to lead, arsenic, mercury, organic solvents, as well as radium, which was used in manufacture of watch dials. She remained in this unsalaried position from 1911 to 1921 when her program was cancelled after pro-business Republicans regained control of the White House.

Hamilton was also deeply involved in support of peace. Along with Jane Addams and Emily Balch, she was part of the delegation that traveled the countries of Europe to encourage the end of World War I. The group later became the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. In 1915, Hamilton and Addams published Women at the Hague about their efforts in international diplomacy.

In 1919, Dr. Hamilton was offered a position of assistant professor of industrial medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts. The medical school made three requirements: Dr. Hamilton would not be allowed to use the Faculty Club, she would have no access to football tickets and she would not be allowed to march in commencement processions. She accepted and became the first woman on the staff. All her students were male, because Harvard did not admit women students until World War II. After 1925, she was on the faculty of Harvard's School of Public Health. Hamilton continued doing industrial research at Harvard and she also served on the League of Nations Health Committee between 1924-1930. This allowed her to investigate industrial health conditions in several other countries as well. She published Industrial Poisons in the United States in 1925 and Industrial Toxicology in 1934.

Following her retirement from Harvard in 1935, she became a consultant for the Division Of Labor Standards of the U.S. Labor Department. In 1943, she published her autobiography Exploring the Dangerous Trades. From 1944 to 1949, she served as president of the National Consumers League. Dr. Hamilton received many honorary degrees, distinctions and awards, including a listing in Men of Science in 1944 and the Lasker Award of the U.S. Public Health Association in 1947. It is noteworthy, however, that her final faculty rank was only that of an Assistant Professor Emeritus of Industrial Medicine, which means that she never received a promotion. She spent her last years gardening and painting and died in 1970 in Hadlyme, Connecticut, a few months after her one hundredth birthday.

Contributed by Danuta Bois, 1997.

1. American Women's History by Doris Weatherford, Prentice Hall General Reference, 1994
2. The Book of Women's Firsts: Breakthrough Achievements of Almost 1,000 American Women by Phyllis J. Read and Bernard L. Witlieb, Random House, 1992
3. Women of Science: Righting the Record, edited by G. Kass-Simon and Patricia Farnes, Indiana University Press, 1993


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