American Chemical Society Salutes Occupational Medicine Pioneer Alice Hamilton

Feb. 26, 2002
Alice Hamilton, who was born in New York City in 1869, helped make the American workplace a less dangerous place through her efforts as one of the founders of occupational medicine.

Alice Hamilton, who was born in New York City in 1869 and raised in Fort Wayne, Ind., helped to make the American workplace a less dangerous place through her efforts as one of the founders of occupational medicine.

The American Chemical Society is recognizing the work of Hamilton in industrial toxicology, the study of poisonous substances in the workplace, during its "Year of the Woman." The theme of the year is "Diversity in the 21st Century: Advancing Women in Science." The year also marks the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Society's Women Chemists Committee, one of the oldest women's scientific committees.

In September, the society plans to designate Hamilton's scientific contributions as a National Historic Chemical Landmark with a ceremony at Chicago's famed Hull House. The society established the landmarks program in 1992 to commemorate seminal events in the history of chemistry and to heighten public awareness of the role chemistry has played in the history of the United States and around the world.

Hamilton struggled against the prejudices of her day to attain an education and achieve professional success. Hamilton received a medical degree from the University of Michigan and then interned at Northwestern Hospital for Women and Children in Minneapolis and at the New England Hospital for Women and Children in Boston. Later, Hamilton traveled to Germany with her sister, Edith Hamilton, a noted classicist and author of The Greek Way. Alice enrolled in universities in Munich and Leipzig for a year, but because neither school allowed female students, she had to make herself inconspicuous to male students while attending lectures in bacteriology and pathology. Hamilton also studied at Johns Hopkins Medical School.

In 1919, Hamilton was offered a position in industrial medicine at Harvard Medical School. The faculty position came with three stipulations: she could not attend the Faculty Club; she could not get football tickets; and she could not march in the commencement procession. Hamilton was the first woman on the Harvard faculty, and all her students were men, since the university still did not admit women.

But it was at Hull House in the first two decades of the 20th century that Alice Hamilton made her greatest mark as the pioneer in the development of industrial medicine. At Hull House, Hamilton treated poor immigrants for diseases often stemming from their jobs, and she established a baby clinic. In 1902, during Chicago's typhoid epidemic, she linked transmission of the disease to inadequate sewage disposal, contaminated water and flies.

Hamilton studied the extent of industrial sickness in Illinois, particularly investigating high mortality rates due to industrial poisoning in the lead and associated enamelware industries, rubber production, painting trades and explosives and munitions. Her research provided insight into the safe handling of chemicals in the workplace, and it led to changes in state laws and ultimately federal industrial safety legislation. In 1934, she wrote Industrial Toxicology, the first textbook in the field.

Throughout her life, Alice Hamilton was interested in social issues, as demonstrated by her decision to live at Hull House. In her autobiography, Dangerous Trades (1943), Hamilton noted what Hull House taught her that "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 experiences."

Hamilton died in 1970 at the age of 101.

edited by Sandy Smith ([email protected])

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