Alice Hamilton was born 147 years ago in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the second of four daughters of Montgomery Hamilton and his wife Gertrude. After a thorough education at home and at a finishing school, she went to the University of Michigan Medical School, where she received her Doctor of Medicine degree in 1893. Over the next years she completed her medical training at home and abroad. In 1897, she accepted the post of Professor of Pathology at the Women’s Medical School, Chicago.
There, she soon became a member and resident of Hull House, one of America’s best-known settlement houses, founded in 1889 by the social reformer and peace activist Jane Addams (1860-1935). As a kind of community centre for a neighbourhood that consisted mostly of European emigrants, Hull House offered civic, cultural, recreational and educational activities, while its more academic residents used their interactions with this mixed working-class community to study their living conditions and devise programmes and campaigns that would lead to improvements. Hamilton soon opened a well-baby clinic where she attended young children and learnt through conversations with their mothers about the health problems and working conditions of labourers. From 1902-10 she worked as a bacteriologist at the Memorial Institute for Infectious Diseases in Chicago, investigating typhoid and drug-related health problems. While looking for specific literature on ‘industrial medicine’, she realised that although it was an integral part of medical studies in various European countries, nothing had so far been published about it in the USA. In 1908 she published one of the first articles on occupational diseases, based on her research and experience at Hull House.
By 1910 Dr. Hamilton had become a leading member of the newly formed Occupational Disease Commission of Illinois, the first investigative body of its kind in the United States. For nearly a decade she would conduct ground breaking studies of occupational toxic disorders, and her scientific findings led to wide-ranging reforms in hygiene, working conditions, living conditions and health treatment of the workers. In 1915, she accompanied Jane Addams and Emily G. Balch (1867-1961) to the International Congress of Women in The Hague, and joined them as a co-author of Women at The Hague: The International Congress of Women and Its Results (1915).
In 1919, she became Havard’s first woman professor, working as an Assistant Professor in the new Department of Industrial Medicine (at Harvard Medical School) until her retirement in 1935. She collaborated with authorities and the League of Nations on questions of public health, and was medical consultant to the U.S. Division of Labor Standards after her retirement. She died on 22 Septebmer, 1970, at the age of 101.
During her lifetime and afterwards, Alice Hamilton was variously honoured, read more here. Exactly 29 years ago, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) named its primary research facility after her, the “Alice Hamilton Laboratory for Occupational Safety and Health”. In 1995, U.S. Postal Service honoured her extensive contributions with a commemorative stamp.
A detailed account of Dr. Hamilton and her contribution to Occupational Medicine can be found here. Her papers are at the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, with a chronology of her life. The autobiographical account of her work can be read in: Exploring the Dangerous Trades: The Autobiography of Alice Hamilton, M.D.. Boston: Little Brown, 1943.