Hamilton, Alice (1869–1970)

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Hamilton, Alice (1869–1970)

Groundbreaking practitioner of industrial toxicology and leading American social reformer of the 19th and 20th centuries. Pronunciation: Ham-il-tun. Born on February 27, 1869 in New York City; died at age 101 on September 22, 1970, in Hadlyme, Connecticut; daughter of Gertrude Pond Hamilton (1840–1917) and Montgomery Hamilton (1843–1909, a businessman); sister of classical scholar Edith Hamilton (1867–1963) and artist Norah Hamilton (b. 1873); attended Fort Wayne College of Medicine, 1890–1891, University of Michigan Medical School, 1892–93, University of Leipzig, Germany, 1895–96, and Johns Hopkins Medical School, 1896–97; never married; no children.

Took position teaching at the Woman's Medical School of Northwestern University in Chicago (summer 1896); joined the settlement at Jane Addams' Hull House (1897); was appointed to the Illinois Occupation Disease Commission and became a special agent for the U.S. Bureau of Labor, for whom she would conduct various surveys of American industries (1910); joined Jane Addams' Women's Peace Party (1915) and attended, with 50 other American women, the International Congress of Women at The Hague; began an appointment as assistant professor of industrial medicine at Harvard Medical School (1919); commenced a ten-year career as medical consultant to the General Electric Company (1923); served on the Health Committee of Council of the League of Nations (1924–28); served on President Hoover's Research Committee on Social Trends (1930–32); retired from Harvard (1935); worked on her last major study of the dangerous trades, in this case, a survey of the viscose rayon industry (1937–38); gave annual lectures about industrial toxicology at the Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania (1937–43); traveled to Frankfurt, Germany, as a representative of the Department of Labor at the Eighth International Congress on Occupational Accidents and Diseases (1938); published her autobiography, Exploring the Dangerous Trades (1943); became president of the National Consumers' League (1944); received the Lasker Award for contributions to workers' health (1947); was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Michigan (1948); received the Knudsen Award of the Industrial Medical Association (1953); was given the Elizabeth Blackwell Citation of the New York Infirmary (1954); was named New England Medical Woman of the Year (1956); was honored on the occasion of her 90th birthday with the establishment of the Alice Hamilton Fund for Occupation Medicine at the Harvard School of Public Health (1959).

Major publications on public health and industrial medicine—all published by the U.S. Government Printing Office, unless otherwise noted: Lead Poisoning in Potteries, Tile Works, and Porcelain Enameled Sanitary Ware Factories (1912); Hygiene of the Painters' Trade (1913); Lead Poisoning in the Smelting and Refining of Lead (1914); Industrial Poisons Used in the Rubber Industry (1915); Lead Poisoning in the Manufacture of Storage Batteries (1915); (with Charles H. Verrill) Hygiene of the Printing Trade (1917); Industrial Poisons Used or Produced in the Manufacture of Explosives (1917); Women in the Lead Industries (1919); Industrial Poisoning in Making Coal-tar Dyes and Dye Intermediates (1921); Poverty and Birth Control (NY: American Birth Control League, 1921); Carbon-Monoxide Poisoning (1922); Women Workers and Industrial Poisons (1926); Industrial Poisons of the United States (NY: Macmillan, 1929); Industrial Toxicology (NY: Harper, 1934); Occupational Poisoning in the Viscose Rayon Industry (1940).

In the early 20th century, Dr. Alice Hamilton began an unprecedented exploration of what she termed "the dangerous trades." By studying the environments of lead workers, miners, painters, enamelers, printers, and munitions makers, Hamilton became the first American scientist to demonstrate the dangers of working with industrial toxins. The occupational safety requirements now standard in the United States are in large part a result of Hamilton's early efforts as an agent of the U.S. Bureau of Labor. By bringing her scientific training to bear on the social problems of the laboring poor, Hamilton uncovered important links between poverty and disease, elevating issues of class and industrial reform to the forefront of American public health policy.

Born to Montgomery and Gertrude Pond Hamilton in New York City in 1869, Alice Hamilton was the second of five children—four girls and one boy—and grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Her early years were profoundly shaped by the insular world in which she lived, which was almost solely populated by relatives. A well-to-do family when Alice was a child, the Hamiltons lived in three houses on an estate which covered three city blocks. The relationships between Hamilton, her siblings, and cousins were especially strong and close, and the children rarely felt a need to move beyond their circle for entertainment or friendship.

The education of the Hamilton children was directed by their parents, who disapproved of both the curriculum and the stifling quality of public education. Montgomery Hamilton instructed his children in Latin, hired a tutor to teach them French, and sent them to a Lutheran schoolteacher to learn German. Otherwise, Alice and her siblings were encouraged to read literature and history on their own, which they did with fervor. Montgomery was a strict schoolmaster and demanded rigorous thinking from his daughters. "We were not allowed to make a statement which could be challenged unless we were prepared to defend it. One of my father's favorite quotations was, 'Be ready always to give a reason of the hope that is in you.'" He encouraged a scientific, logical approach to problems, although he never encouraged his children to study science itself. Alice believed that such self-directed learning had been "valuable," but she regretted the lapses in her education as well. She considered herself, at age 17, "completely ignorant" of the natural sciences, and too limited in philosophy and literature.

Alice remembered her mother as "less intellectual but more original and independent" than her father. In particular, Alice admired her mother's pragmatic sensibility, her fiery sense of justice, and her advocacy that women engage the world outside their homes. "She made us feel that whatever went wrong in our society was a personal concern for her and for us.… Some thing she said once gives a picture of her quality and of the atmosphere in which we girls grew up:—'There are two kinds of people, the ones who say "Somebody ought to do something about it, but why should it be I?" and those who say "Somebody must do something about it, then why not I?"'" Alice's public health career and her general interest in the well-being of the less fortunate had their roots in this guiding principle of her early development.

At age 17, Hamilton and her cousin and friend Agnes Hamilton , following in older female relatives' footsteps, entered Miss Porter's School for Young Ladies in Farmington, Connecticut. Although Alice disparaged the school's teaching as "the world's worst," while there she experienced a measure of independence that thrilled her. She met people who had utterly different backgrounds and "passionately admired" them, treasuring the friendships she made there for years to come.

When her short tenure at Farmington ended, Alice returned to Fort Wayne to confront, as did her older sister Edith Hamilton , the reality that the family fortune had dwindled rather substantially. Montgomery Hamilton, although a devoted intellectual, had failed at business and thereby depleted his family's resources. The elder Hamilton women decided to prepare themselves to "earn our living" and chose from the few careers that seemed attainable: "teaching, nursing, and the practice of medicine." Alice determined to become a doctor, but not, as she readily admitted, from any devotion to scientific pursuits. In fact, throughout her education, she had avoided the sciences, first because her father had not deemed it important and later because, without some basic training, mathematics and the natural sciences appeared daunting. Instead, Alice chose to become a doctor because "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." To this end, she set about remedying her deficient scientific knowledge with the help of a local high school teacher. Within a year, she was able to begin anatomy training at the provincial Fort Wayne Medical College, and in 1892 she entered the Medical School of the University of Michigan for what she termed "a real course."

Although the road Hamilton chose was not an easy one for women of her era, she was not alone. One historian has called the late 19th century "a golden age for women in medicine," pointing out that when Hamilton began her career, there were more than 4,500 registered female physicians in the United States. Even so, great challenges faced a woman who chose to enter medicine in those days, and for Alice, the first great opposition came from her own family. Her older sister Edith vociferously opposed the choice, as did a former teacher, who viewed "the whole affair as if it were an amusing childish whim." In her closest family relation and dear friend, Agnes, however, Hamilton found unwavering support; Agnes confessed in her journal that she hoped Alice would become a doctor rather than anything else.

When Hamilton arrived in Ann Arbor, Michigan, she was both excited and discomfited by the latitude accorded young women in the liberal world of a large university. She was also struck by the lonesome reality of the independent life she had longed for, so different from Fort Wayne society. As she wrote to Agnes, "It is so queer to be one of so many and of such very little importance. I am absolutely nobody, for the first time in my life, with no family name or reputation to fall back on, just one of the multitude with no more deference shown me than any of the others." Quickly, though, her initial misgivings gave way to an eager exploration of the new horizons offered her by the fast-paced, intellectually stimulating environment. In the course of her studies, Hamilton impressed both her peers and her professors. She performed so well, in fact, that during her senior year the Medical School voted to allow her to graduate early, obviating the usual routine transfer to the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania for post-graduate studies.

During her final year at Michigan, Hamilton decided to become a bacteriologist and pathologist, rather than a physician. After graduating, she traveled to Germany to study under leading scientists there, and after returning to the U.S. in 1896, undertook another semester of work in pathological anatomy—"really pure enjoyment"—at Johns Hopkins Medical School. The following summer, the Women's Medical School of Northwestern University offered her a teaching position, which she happily accepted. While she desperately needed an income, she also wanted the job for another, more idealistic, reason. "At last I could realize the dream I had had for years, of going to live in Hull-House." Although Hamilton's sheltered life in Indiana had not introduced her to the problems of poverty and disease that late-19th century social reformers hoped to conquer, she and her cousin Agnes learned about the settlement movement in books and by hearing Jane Addams speak at a Methodist church in Fort Wayne. From that time on, they had determined to spend at least some of their adult lives at a settlement.

Jane Addams had been inspired to found her own settlement after visiting the famed Toynbee House in London. Like her predecessors, Addams had adopted the philosophy that reformminded individuals should "settle" destitute urban neighborhoods and set up houses as staffed centers for community improvement. Addams moved to Chicago, where she and fellow reformers purchased an old mansion (Hull House) in the slum-ridden West Side, and in 1889 they established a complex of services which included a day-care nursery, adult-education and worker-training classes, and cultural activities like theater and musical concerts. Addams staffed her settlement (the third in the United States) with interested young men and women who served for no pay other than the opportunity to participate in the revolutionary experiment. By 1900, the movement had spawned over 100 settlements across the country.

Alice's years at Hull House were truly transformative for her. In Jane Addams, she found a mentor, hero, and source of inspiration, and in the settlement she found a purpose and lifelong commitment. Later she recalled, "To me, the life there satisfied every longing, for companionship, for the excitement of new experiences, for constant intellectual stimulation, and for the sense of being caught up in a big movement which enlisted my enthusiastic loyalty." This place where Hamilton had found total satisfaction lay in the midst of the 19th Ward, one of the poorest and most squalid immigrant neighborhoods in Chicago. People from at least 18 nations lived in the community, including Irish, Poles, Greeks, Italians, Jews, Russians, and Bohemians. Hamilton felt renewed by her daily contact with those in need, and engaged with fellow reformers in debates about the meanings and solutions to poverty and degradation. As she worked in the well-baby clinic and confronted teenage boys addicted to cocaine, Hamilton lost her small-town naiveté; in its place grew a handy pragmatism and a rapidly growing liberal sensibility toward the poor. "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 experience. You can never, thereafter, hear people speak of the 'masses,' the 'ignorant voters,' without feeling that if it were put up to you whether you would trust the fate of the country to 'the classes' or to 'the masses,' you would decide for the latter." At the same time, during her early years with the settlement, Hamilton approached the problems she saw primarily from the stand-point

of a scientist who could, simply by applying the knowledge she had, remedy the ills that beset those around her. In 1902, she received a life-changing, bittersweet lesson about the limits of this approach when she saw the search for scientific truth undermined by class prejudices and political injustice.

That year, typhoid fever had become epidemic throughout Chicago's poorer neighborhoods. The tenements surrounding Hull House were especially hard hit by the plague, but no one on the city's ineffective Board of Health could determine the reason. Hamilton, however, had made some observations on her own. "As I prowled about the streets and the ramshackle wooden tenement houses I saw the outdoor privies (forbidden by law but flourishing nevertheless), some of them in backyards below the level of the street and overflowing in heavy rains; the wretched water closets indoors, one for four or more families, filthy and with the plumbing out of order because nobody was responsible for cleaning or repairs; and swarms of flies everywhere." The flies instantly riveted her attention, bringing to mind a case she had studied in medical school, in which scientists had argued that there was a link between poor sanitation, flies, and the spread of typhoid fever.

Hamilton, with fellow Hull House residents Maude Gernon and Gertrude Howe , commenced her own study of flies along the back alleys of the 19th Ward's tenements by collecting the insects and submitting them to microscopic study in the lab, which revealed that they did carry typhoid. Hamilton was fully satisfied that the questionable sanitation in her poor neighborhood led to the presence of typhoid-bearing insects. Moreover, this conformed to her general idea that poverty was the root cause of the epidemic because in well-screened middle-class homes with safe plumbing, such epidemics did not occur.

Hamilton's solid investigation of the problem garnered her great acclaim and prompted a major reorganization of the Board of Health. However, it was at this moment that Hamilton learned the most valuable lesson from the episode: the extreme concentration of typhoid in the 19th Ward had not been caused solely by the causes she had identified. Although typhoid was endemic in poorer neighborhoods because of poor sanitation and disease-bearing insects (as she assumed), the cause of the great outbreak in the neighborhood had a political, as well as a scientific, source. The local pumping station had a break in its pipes, which caused raw sewage to leak into the drinking water. For three days, the people in the 19th Ward had drunk the contaminated water, but the Board of Health refused to reveal that fact to the public. Hamilton never ceased to be mortified by both the city government's treatment of the poor and by the way her work was used to hide the truth from the people she cared for so much. From this episode, Hamilton learned that although scientific inquiry was vital to the protection of public health, social and political realities could have an equal, if not greater, impact on social welfare. It was a lesson she never forgot.

It was not until 1908 that Hamilton found a way to put her talents as a scientist and her sense of social compassion to best effect. During that year, she began the work for which she is best known today: an exploration of the "dangerous trades." The term was coined by Britain's Thomas Oliver, who wrote a book with the same title which Hamilton read with great interest. She began researching the subject of toxins in the workplace but quickly discovered that virtually nothing had been written about the subject in regard to American industry. "Everyone with whom I talked assured me that the foreign writings could not apply to American conditions, for our workmen were so much better paid, their standard of living was so much higher, and the factories they worked in so much finer in every way than the European, that they did not suffer from the evils to which the poor foreigner was subject. That sort of talk left me skeptical." Hamilton's doubt arose from the bald contradiction between the experts' assertions and what she had learned through daily contact with her neighbors in the 19th Ward. "I could not fail to hear tales of the dangers that workingmen faced, of cases of carbon-monoxide gassing in the great steel mills, of painters disabled by lead palsy, of pneumonia and rheumatism among the men in the stockyards."

Hamilton soon had an opportunity to put her suspicions to the test. Charles Henderson, a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, had encouraged the governor of Illinois to appoint an Occupational Disease Commission to establish the extent of sickness caused by industrial hazards in the state. Henderson knew that Hamilton had been keenly interested in the subject and arranged to have her appointed to the board. In 1910, they began their work by taking up one facet of the larger problem of industrial disease, that of occupational poisons. Because no official body in the state actually knew which trades used poisons in the first place, the commission had to investigate in a rather haphazard fashion. Using cases from local hospitals as a guide, the scientists sought out sick laborers and then worked backward to target particular factories. Although daunting, the work gave Hamilton great satisfaction. "It was pioneering exploration of an unknown field.… Everything I discovered was new and most of it was really valuable."

In the course of the Illinois Survey, Hamilton came into contact with hundreds of sick workers, from whom she elicited disturbing stories of sickness and suffering. She credited her successful interviewing techniques to the years she had spent at Hull House, which had made her quite comfortable "going straight to the homes of people about whom I wished to learn something and talking to them in their own surroundings, where they have courage to speak out what is in their minds." Almost all the men with whom she spoke were immigrants; Hamilton felt sure that many factory managers, bent on getting the cheapest labor possible, took advantage of immigrants' inability to communicate and their desperate poverty. With no family nor means, a man took whatever job he could find, no matter what the dangers. Hamilton argued that the employers viewed the situation with cold indifference: if the job "proved to be one that weakened and crippled them—well, that was their bad luck!"

Within a year, Hamilton presented her findings to the commission. Her first investigation had examined the hazards of lead manufacturing. She quickly determined that lead poisoning occurred when workers inhaled lead fumes and dust, not when they handled their food with unwashed hands as had always been assumed by employers. Moreover, it soon became clear that lead poisoning had a number of different symptoms, not all of which were easily identified, but all of which eventually led to utter debilitation. She later described one of the poisoned men she met in this way:

A Hungarian, thirty-six years old, worked for seven years grinding lead paint. During this time he had three attacks of colic, with vomiting and headache. 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.

At the end of the survey, Hamilton had documented at least 578 cases of lead poisoning like this, a conservative number in her estimation. In light of the commission's findings, Illinois passed a law requiring employers to adequately protect those employees who worked with certain toxins, including lead and arsenic. Moreover, the new law mandated strict rules for the reporting of work-related diseases to the state's factory inspection department.

During her time with the Illinois survey, Hamilton had been invited to attend the International Congress on Occupational Accidents and Diseases which had convened in Brussels, Belgium. While there, she met Charles O'Neill, commissioner of the Bureau of Labor for the U.S. government (the Department of Labor did not exist until 1912), and a kindred spirit on the subject of "the deplorable impression our country made" in regard to industrial safety. After returning to the United States, Hamilton received a letter from O'Neill, in which he asked her to officially become an agent of the Bureau of Labor and begin a federal survey like the one she was performing for Illinois. She would have no supervisor and no salary; instead, she would work on her own terms and once she had written a report on each investigation, the government would simply purchase it from her.

The federal survey required that she give up her pathology work at Northwestern, but she saw this as a great opportunity. As she recalled later in her autobiography:

I had long been convinced that it was not in me to be anything more than a fourth-rate bacteriologist. Interesting as I found the subject, and pleasant as I found the life, I was never absorbed in it.… I never have doubt ed the wisdom of my decision to give it up and devote myself to work which has been scientific only in part, but human and practical in greater measure.

After many years, Hamilton had finally found her vocation in a pursuit which allowed her to use her scientific training to further the social ends so close to her heart. Just as she had in the Illinois survey, Hamilton began her federal work with an investigation of white-lead and lead-oxide production. In her travels to Omaha, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and New York, Hamilton repeatedly encountered industries that employed men on the lowest rung of the social ladder, subjected them to profound physical hazards, and then blamed their diseases on perceived ethnic or racial failings. Lack of cleanliness, general laziness, stupidity, or inborn weaknesses were repeatedly blamed for the occurrence of "lead fits" or "lead palsy." One of the biggest challenges that Hamilton faced was to convince employers that their work endangered the laborers and that with little trouble, the risks could be significantly lessened. Although she met with stubborn resistance from some, Hamilton believed that by spreading the word, publishing her reports, and personally encouraging employers to change their practices, she would be able to enlighten them and thereby alter their point of view.

Hamilton's first federal survey was published by the Bureau of Labor in 1911. In it, she documented conditions at 22 of the 25 lead factories in the country, isolated 358 cases of lead poisoning, and established herself as an expert on the subject. By the time the report was published, at least half of the factories she visited had already made improvements in their facilities. Impressed with her initial efforts, the government next asked Hamilton to investigate lead poisoning in ancillary trades which used lead in the production of other items, rather than the making of lead itself. She published extensive reports on the pottery, tile, and porcelain enameled sanitary ware (i.e. bathtub) industries; the painters' trade; the printers trades; the production of storage batteries; and the manufacture of rubber.

Hamilton's carefully documented studies undermined the long-held belief that American factories were safer than European industry simply by virtue of their being American. Moreover, by refusing to limit herself to mere analysis, she was able to advocate change to factory owners. As Barbara Sicherman has noted, "Convinced that any man of goodwill would do the right thing once he knew the truth, she had an uncanny ability to appeal to the best instincts of others." Using a combination of persistence, persuasion, and publicity, Hamilton successfully brought the attention of Americans to the problem of occupational safety and the disproportionate risk industrial diseases posed to the working classes. Her assiduous research was matched only by her commitment to social justice; she did everything with a sense of solemn responsibility for the welfare of the poorest and least represented in American society.

While she continued to investigate the dangerous trades throughout the 1910s and 1920s, Hamilton expanded her professional life beyond the survey work. In 1919, she became the first woman ever appointed to a professorship at Harvard University, where she taught industrial toxicology, the scientific study of the effects of industrial poisons on humans. In 1923, she began a ten-year stint as a medical consultant to the General Electric Company. During the late 1920s and early 1930s, she published two well-received books on industrial poisons and served on President Herbert Hoover's Research Committee on Social Trends. After retiring from Harvard (upon being asked to do so) in 1935, she found work with the Department of Labor as a consultant to the Division of Labor Standards. During 1937, she embarked on her last detailed and original investigation of the dangerous trades, a survey of the viscose rayon industry, and began giving annual lectures on toxicology at the Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania.

Throughout her busy professional career, Hamilton had also embraced a wide range of social causes, including Jane Addams' Women's International League for Peace and Freedom and Margaret Sanger 's campaign for birth control, for which she wrote Poverty and Birth Control in 1921. Even as she moved into her 70s and 80s, Hamilton remained actively engaged in the prominent social issues of the day, writing and speaking on subjects ranging from trade unions to McCarthyism.

In 1943, while living with her younger sister, Margaret Hamilton , at Hadlyme, Connecticut, Hamilton wrote her autobiography, Exploring the Dangerous Trades. In 1947, she became the first woman to receive the Lasker Award in public health, which was followed by numerous distinctions and prizes over the next two decades. At age 88, she wrote to a friend that "life is still as interesting as ever," and, as she predicted to another correspondent, she lived longer than any of her contemporaries. In 1970, Hamilton died in Hadlyme at the age of 101, having changed the face of industry and radicalized the cause of public health in America.


Hamilton, Alice. Exploring the Dangerous Trades. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1943.

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

suggested reading:

Addams, Jane. Twenty Years at Hull House with autobiographical notes. Illustrated by Norah Hamilton, with an introduction and notes by James Hurt. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.

——, Emily G. Balch, and Alice Hamilton. Women at the Hague: The International Congress of Women and Its Results. NY: Garland Publishers, 1972 (reprint of 1915 edition).


Correspondence and papers located at the Schlesinger Library of Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts; also see relevant material in collection of Radcliffe College's "Women in Science Exhibit" of 1936, similarly located in the Schlesinger Library.

Margaret M. Storey , Assistant Professor of History, DePaul University, Chicago, Illinois

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Hamilton, Alice (1869–1970)

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Hamilton, Alice (1869–1970)