Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Alice Hamilton

A physician, Alice Hamilton was committed to fighting industrial poisoning. She was born on February 27, 1869, in New York City to Montgomery Hamilton, a wholesale grocer, and Gertrude Pond Hamilton.

Raised by her grandmother in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Alice Hamilton lived in material comfort and in 1886 entered a private school in Farmington, Connecticut. She then took science courses at the Fort Wayne College of Medicine and in 1892 entered the University of Michigan. Hamilton received her medical degree in 1893 and interned at hospitals in Minneapolis and Boston. Further training in Europe and at the Johns Hopkins Medical School led to her accepting a teaching position in 1897 at the Woman's Medical School at Northwestern University, near Chicago.

Hamilton began her work in social reform when she decided to live at Chicago's Hull-House, a settlement house begun by Jane Addams to help immigrants. During a typhoid epidemic in 1902 in the Hull-House district, she concluded that the disease was being spread by flies. Later, other researchers disproved her theory, but her findings had alerted Chicagoans to the poor housing in immigrant neighborhoods.

She soon turned her attention to industrial poisoning-the use of chemicals damaging to workers' health. To begin her research she obtained material from European countries that were far ahead of the United States in regulating the problem. In 1909 Governor Charles S. Deneen appointed her to the Illinois Commission on Occupational Diseases. She served on the commission for two years before resigning to become medical investigator for its Survey of Occupational Disease, a job that required her to visit mines, mills, and smelters. She showed that workers suffered from high disease and mortality rates related to lead; in particular, she focused on the making of white lead used in matches, and her investigation of 25 factories revealed 358 cases of lead poisoning, 16 of them fatal, from 1910 to 1911.

Hamilton later found that dyes, acid, arsenic, and carbon monoxide also damaged workers. In a report she noted an obstacle to her research: Unlike England and Germany, Illinois kept few records on workers' illnesses, meaning that "one must simply grope again, and one must carefully check up and control every bit of information one gets." Hamilton had also to contend with plant managers who tried to hide evidence of industrial poisoning; one scraped red lead from a factory ceiling before she inspected the facility.

A pacifist, Hamilton opposed American entry into World War I and revealed the life-threatening conditions in weapons plants. "England and France," she wrote after the war, "facing an emergency infinitely greater than ours, took thought to protect their munitions workers, but we did not."

In 1919 Hamilton participated in the Quaker famine relief effort in war-ravaged Germany. Later that year she joined Harvard Medical School as a part-time assistant professor specializing in industrial medicine, and she criticized the discrimination she faced on campus as the college's first female teacher. She wrote two leading textbooks, Industrial Poisons in the United States (1925) and Industrial Toxicology (1934), and from 1924 to 1930 she served on the Health Committee of the League of Nations.

Hamilton retired from Harvard in 1935, but she continued her efforts to apply medicine to social reform. She worked as a consultant to the Division of Labor Standards in the federal government's Department of Labor, and from 1944 to 1949 she served as president of the National Consumers' League. In the 1950s she supported an equal rights amendment to the Constitution, and in 1963 she demanded that the United States end its military involvement in Vietnam. Alice Hamilton died on September 22, 1970, in Hadlyme, Connecticut.

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