Alice Hamilton (1896-1970)

Pioneer of Industrial Medicine

Alice Hamilton earned the name “First Lady of Industrial Medicine” for pioneering a field dedicated to public health and safety. She is responsible for spearheading groundbreaking studies into the poisonous effects of lead, aniline dyes, carbon monoxide, mercury, tetraethyl lead, radium (in wristwatch dials among other uses), benzene, chemicals in storage batteries, and carbon disulfide and hydrogen sulfide gases created in the manufacture of viscose rayon.

The daughter of one of the founding families of Fort Wayne, Indiana, Hamilton planned to become a medical doctor. Because her all-girls high school offered very little in the sciences, she had to obtain tutoring in chemistry and physics before entering the University of Michigan Medical School (students were accepted to medical school from high school at the time). A fascination with pathology, however, would lead Hamilton to alter her plans for clinical practice and instead, she became a research scientist.

After completing her medical training in 1893, Hamilton set out to study bacteriology in Germany. She discovered that German universities did not welcome women when she was refused the opportunity to study. Hamilton returned to the United States to a research assistant position at Johns Hopkins Medical School, where she worked with Simon Flexner, a pathologist who went on to head the Rockefeller Institute in New York.

Alice Hamilton, M.D.
Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine

In 1897, Hamilton accepted an appointment as professor of pathology at the Women's Medical School of Northwestern University in Chicago. She later worked as a bacteriologist at Chicago’s Memorial Institute for Infectious Diseases. For many years, she lived at the famous Jane Addams’s Hull House—a dwelling staffed by idealistic college graduates that offered help to immigrants and the poor. While there, Hamilton used her expertise to find causes for a typhoid fever epidemic plaguing the Chicago community. She identified the connection between ineffective sewage disposal and how flies transmit the disease. Based upon her findings, the entire Chicago health department was investigated and completely restructured.

Soon after, Hamilton became interested in industrial hygiene—specifically, lead poisoning. Due to Hamilton’s public health experience, the governor of Illinois appointed her to the Illinois Commission on Occupational Diseases in 1908. Here, she led a groundbreaking study of industrial-related diseases.

From 1911 to 1920, she served as a special investigator for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. She performed a landmark study on the manufacture of white lead and lead oxide, substances that were commonly used as pigments in the paint industry. Hamilton also made recommendations for safer working conditions.

During that time, Hamilton also led a famous investigation of the poisonous effects of manufacturing explosives on workers. This study was undertaken during World War I at the request of the National Research Council.

By 1918, Hamilton was an established expert in the field of industrial medicine. Harvard University seized the opportunity to place her on faculty in the School of Public Health, making her the first woman professor in any field at the university. There were stipulations to her position, however: She could not use the Faculty Club; she could not have football tickets; and she was not allowed to march in the commencement procession. When she died in 1970, Hamilton had only reached the faculty rank of Assistant Professor Emeritus of Industrial Medicine.

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Sources

  1. Farnes, Patricia. Women in Medical Science. (1990). Women of science (p. 277). Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press.
  2. Alice Hamilton. (n.d.). Chemistry in History. Retrieved from http://www.chemheritage.org/discover/chemistry-in-history/themes/public-and-environmental-health/public-health-and-safety/hamilton.aspx.