Alice Hamilton

views updated May 14 2018

Alice Hamilton


American Pathologist and Industrial Toxicologist

Alice Hamilton was a social crusader who fought for safe conditions in industry and for workers' compensation laws. She laid the foundation for the new field of industrial medicine and became the first female professor at Harvard Medical School.

Born on February 27, 1869, in New York City, Hamilton was second in the family of five born to Montgomery Hamilton, a wholesale grocer, and Gertrude Hamilton. In this very privileged family the children were encouraged to develop their minds and were taught at home and in private schools. Her sister, Edith Hamilton, became a well-known scholar of myth and culture in ancient Greece.

Alice became very interested in medicine and first attended a small, uncertified school before transferring to the University of Michigan, where she received a M.D. degree in 1893. After interning in Minneapolis and Boston, she decided that research in bacteriology and pathology was what she would pursue. She went to the Universities of Leipzig, Munich, and Frankfurt in Germany. She then had the very best training at Johns Hopkins, the University of Chicago, and the Paris Pasteur Institute. In 1897 she was appointed professor of pathology at the Women's Medical College in Chicago, which closed in 1912. She was subsequently hired by the McCormick Institute for Infectious Diseases and stayed until 1909.

While in Chicago, Hamilton lived in the settlement called Hull-House, developed by social worker Jane Addams (1860-1935) to care for the poor. For the first time, Hamilton experienced poverty and disease firsthand and was truly shocked by the conditions. She persuaded the local health department to make an all-out effort to improve these sanitation conditions. She was appalled at how immigrant workers had been afflicted by the fumes and chemicals they were exposed to in their jobs in the steel mills, foundries, and factories. Later, while traveling the country, she found the same hazardous conditions everywhere. A book called Dangerous Trades, by Englishman Sir Thomas Oliver, further inspired Hamilton to begin her lifelong crusade against industrial hazards.

In 1910 she persuaded the governor of Illinois to set up a commission on occupational diseases, in which she was assigned to research the dangers of lead and phosphorus in industry. The next year she became an investigator of industrial poisons for the newly formed Department of Labor. During World War I she exposed the hazards of nitrous fumes that were causing deaths among workers in the explosives industry, but were being passed off as deaths from natural causes.

In 1919 Harvard University appointed Hamilton professor of industrial medicine. She was the first female professor at that institution. She then took her crusade worldwide, serving as the only female delegate to the League of Nations Health Commission in 1924. Her book, Industrial Poisons in the United States, was the first textbook written on industrial medicine. She convinced the Surgeon General to investigate the effects of tetraethyl lead and radium. In 1934 she wrote the classic work, Industrial Toxicology, which led to the passage of workers' compensation laws as part of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.

Retirement from Harvard in 1935 enabled Hamilton to further pursue her mission to influence legislation on health and safety, which she continued until into her late eighties. As a consultant in the United States Department of Labor, she launched a major investigation into the toxic practices of the viscose rayon industry. This led to the first workers' compensation laws in Pennsylvania. The story of her crusade and mission is described in her autobiography Exploring the Dangerous Trades, published in 1943.

Hamilton never married and continued to work for the causes of social justice and pacifism. She died in Hadlyme, Connecticut, in 1970 at the age of 101.


Hamilton, Alice

views updated May 23 2018


Born 27 February 1869, New York, New York; died 22 September 1970

Daughter of Montgomery and Gertrude Pond Hamilton

A pioneer of American industrial medicine, Alice Hamilton was the second of four daughters in a family of five children. The family's idealism and humanitarian interests led each of the sisters to pursue a professional career. Hamilton graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School in 1893. In her autobiography, she writes that she chose medicine "because as a doctor I could go anywhere I pleased, to far-off lands or to city slums, and be quite sure that I could be of use anywhere."

In 1897 Hamilton became the first woman professor at the Women's Medical School of Northwestern University. During her time there, she resided at Hull House, a facility designed to give professional care and advice to the poor in Chicago's slums. It was at Hull House that Hamilton first became aware of the problems of occupationally caused lead poisoning and other degenerative diseases that prevailed among the workers she treated.

In 1910 Hamilton's work won the recognition of the governor of Illinois, who made her the first managing director of the state's Commission on Occupational Diseases. Hamilton's report for the commission concerning the effects of phosphorus and lead fostered the legislation of the state's workers' compensation laws. In 1912 Hamilton and her sister Edith studied in Germany. The new insights Hamilton gained there led to a series of articles for the U.S. government's Women's Bureau. This research is still a valuable introduction to the study of industrial medicine.

Hamilton became Harvard's first woman professor of industrial medicine in 1919, and she was the only woman to serve as official delegate to the U.S.S.R. on a League of Nations health commission (1924). She continued her research and published her first book, Industrial Poisons in the United States, in 1925. The 590-page work summarized the first 40 years of Hamilton's long and productive career by drawing upon case histories for both the diagnosis and treatment of industrial poisoning. Industrial Toxicology (1934) was a concise statement of the principles of industrial health and fundamental concerns of the field; it is regarded as an important primary text for medical students even today.

At the same time that Hamilton's elder sister, Edith Hamilton, published The Great Age of Greek Literature, Hamilton published her autobiography, Exploring the Dangerous Trades (1943). The book also featured illustrations by her sister Norah. Ironically, this book, the least technical of Hamilton's works, received the greatest notoriety. The autobiography tells of Hamilton's pioneering work in industrial medicine, her research in Munich and at Johns Hopkins University, and her residence at Hull House. Hamilton's interesting life is discussed in a colorful, forthright manner. She candidly describes, for example, the trauma of being the only female student in the German universities, and how she was politely reminded that female faculty members were not seated at Harvard's graduation exercises. She also gives touching accounts of her visit to the U.S.S.R. in 1924 and her return to Germany after World War I.

Hamilton was honored after her retirement by numerous women's organizations and medical societies. She continued to lecture in public until her death at the age of 101 years.


U.S. Dept. of Labor (Dec. 1977).

Reference works:

CB (May 1946, Nov. 1970). NCAB. Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

Other references:

American Journal of Public Health (Oct. 1925, Aug. 1943). Booklist (15 Apr. 1943). Bookmark (16 May 1943). Book Week (2 May 1943). Nature (24 Oct. 1925). NR (19 Apr. 1943). NY (17 Apr. 1943). SR (8 May 1973). Survey (1 Nov. 1925, July 1943). TLS (13 July 1925). Weekly Book Review (11 Apr. 1943).


Hamilton, Alice

views updated May 29 2018


Alice Hamilton was born in New York City in 1869, and died in Hadlyme, Connecticut, in 1970. She graduated from the University of Michigan's medical school in 1893 and pursued postgraduate study in pathology and bacteriology in Germany as well as Johns Hopkins University. In 1897, a position as professor of pathology at the Women's Medical School of Northwestern University brought her to Hull House, located in Chicago, where she remained for the next twenty-two years. Hull House was a hotbed for social reform during the turn of the twentieth century, and Hamilton participated in activities designed to ameliorate urban povertyfrom teaching basket weaving to starting an infant health clinic.

In 1908, Hamilton's work at Hull House led to an appointment on the Illinois Commission on Occupational Diseases. The commission lacked any in-depth study on which to recommend legislation and Hamilton was asked to conduct a nine-month survey on the prevalence of industrial diseases in the state. Her survey combined laboratory findings with an extensive investigation of hospital records, inspections of industrial plants, and the testimonials from workers and their families. While she studied a number of dangers, she focused on lead poisoning and was able to connect the disease with specific occupations. Her seminal study, the [Illinois] Report of Commission on Occupational Diseases; To His Excellency Governor Charles S. Deneen (1911), demonstrated that the majority of Illinois' industrial workers faced life-threatening hazards at their jobs. The state responded by immediately passing a law that established occupational safety standards.

Considered the leading authority on industrial toxicology, Hamilton worked as a special investigation for the U.S. Bureau of Labor from 1911 to 1920. She also became an assistant professor of industrial medicine at Harvard from 1919 to 1935, and wrote the first American textbook on the subject, Industrial Poisons in the United States (1925).

Jennifer Koslow

(see also: Lead; Occupational Disease )


Hamilton, A. (1943). Exploring the Dangerous Trades. Boston: Little, Brown.

Sicherman, B. (1984). Alice Hamilton: A Life in Letters. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

(1991). "Working It Out: Gender, Profession, and Reform in the Career of Alice Hamilton." In Gender, Class, Race, and Reform in the Progressive Era, eds. N. Frankel and N. S. Dye. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press.

Alice Hamilton

views updated Jun 08 2018

Alice Hamilton

The American physician Alice Hamilton (1869-1970) is recognized as the founder of industrial medicine in the United States. She was the first woman on the faculty of Harvard Medical School.

Alice Hamilton grew up in Fort Wayne, Ind., in an affluent home. Her parents entertained guests who discussed major topics of the day, and they stimulated the thinking of their children by raising doubts about society's religious and social assumptions. Hamilton attended Miss Porter's School in Farmington, Conn., and in 1893 graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School. She interned in the New England Hospital for Women in Boston. There she serviced working-class people, the usual clientele of the first women doctors (who were seldom employed by the upper classes).

In 1894 Dr. Hamilton studied bacteriology in Germany and returned to accept her first teaching position at the Women's Medical College of Northwestern University in Chicago, III. Another important factor in her life seems to have been her decision to live at Chicago's settlement house, Hull House. Here she came into close contact with notable social reformers (including the founder of Hull House and one of America's first social workers, Jane Addams) and with the sick from the streets and the mills of the city. For several years she was torn between the medical-social work around Hull House and an equally strong desire to devote herself to research at the McCormick Institute for Infectious Diseases.

Eventually Dr. Hamilton's social passion and scientific skills combined as she plunged into the research and activity to control health hazards in the dangerous trades of mining and factory work. Her first real chance came in 1910, when the governor of Illinois appointed her to a commission to investigate occupational diseases. She inspected mines and factories to identify hazardous jobs. After the Federal government asked her to make her research nationwide, she spent 12 years identifying lead, arsenic, and mercury poisons, aniline dyes, picric acid, dust, bad ventilation, and other health hazards. On the basis of her research she was expected to present the needed antidotes and safeguards.

Always an outspoken feminist, Dr. Hamilton must have been excited to accept an invitation in 1919 to be the first woman to join the faculty of the Harvard Medical School. In 1935 she retired from Harvard but not from her national and international efforts to prevent industry from poisoning the earth. She was one of the first to warn of the lethal nature of atomic radiation.

Further Reading

The best book on Alice Hamilton is her autobiography, Exploring the Dangerous Trades (1943). For general background see George Rosen, A History of Public Health (1958). □

About this article

Alice Hamilton

All Sources -
Updated Aug 13 2018 About content Print Topic