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Alice Hamilton Changed Workplace Safety Forever — And You’ve Likely Never Heard Of Her

When then-middle school student Julia Florek Carlson went on a family visit to the Hull House museum searching for an idea for a history fair project, she came across a “little tiny exhibit in the corner,” she said. It was about a long-time Hull House resident named Alice Hamilton.

And she thought, “Who?

There wasn’t very much information about Hamilton — a bit about her being a pioneer in the field of science and disease — just enough to get Julia intrigued.

So she asked Curious City: Who was Alice Hamilton and what was her impact on Chicago and the country?

It’s a big question because Alice Hamilton, who lived to 101, led no small life.

Hamilton was a doctor, a scientist and Harvard’s first female professor. She was known for her “shoe leather” epidemiology — wearing out the soles of her shoes from all the trips she made to factories, hospitals and even saloons to carry out her research.

Her investigations of toxins in factories led to some of the first workplace safety laws in the country, saving countless American lives.

In fact, many say Hamilton’s work inspired the creation of an entire federal agency: the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which sets and enforces standards that guarantee a safe and healthy workplace.

So we created a timeline of just a few of her significant contributions to public health and workplace safety.

1869 - Alice Hamilton is born in Fort Wayne, Indiana

Hamilton grew up on a large family estate, homeschooled along with her siblings and cousins. Biographer Matthew Ringenberg, co-author of The Education of Alice Hamilton: From Fort Wayne to Harvard, said Hamilton was raised to believe that she “had a real responsibility to find meaningful ways to serve the world.”

For Hamilton, that meant becoming a doctor. This was difficult because her father had the children study languages and literature and didn’t care for math and science. But Hamilton was determined to go to medical school. She convinced her father to hire a tutor, who taught her physics and chemistry. She took anatomy at the local medical school.

1893 - Hamilton graduates from the University of Michigan Medical School

In her autobiography, Hamilton wrote, “I chose [medicine] because as a doctor 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.” She realized she was more interested in being a researcher rather than a practicing doctor, and she developed a speciality in bacteriology.

Hamilton was among the first generation of women who had access to higher education in the professions. “These women had a great deal of success in the political world, as well as in medicine and in academe,” according to Barbara Sicherman, author of Alice Hamilton: A Life in Letters.

1897 - Hamilton begins teaching at Northwestern, volunteering at Hull House

At Hull House, a settlement house on Chicago’s near west side founded by social reformer Jane Addams, Hamilton provided services to immigrants. She cared for mothers and their children and began to observe families suffered from a variety of health issues, which she attributed to the conditions in the neighborhood and the factories where people worked. “I could not fail to hear tales of dangers that workingmen faced, of cases of carbon-monoxide gassing in the great steel mills, of painters disabled by palsy, of pneumonia and rheumatism among the men in the stockyards,” she wrote in her autobiography.

1908 - Hamilton starts working for the Illinois Commission on Occupational Diseases

Illinois Gov. Charles Deneen was so impressed by Hamilton’s research he appointed her to the Illinois Commission on Occupational Diseases, which studied workplace disease. Shortly after she was appointed to the Commission, the governor asked Hamilton to head a study in 1910, the first of its kind in Illinois, which would eventually establish a clear link between industries using lead and high rates of illness and death among its workers. The report also tracked the relationship between disease and industrial use of other chemicals including carbon monoxide, turpentine and arsenic. The commission's report resulted in one of the earliest workplace safety laws in Illinois, with the Occupational Diseases Law of 1911. The law required safety procedures to limit exposure to toxins, to implement monthly medical exams and to create a system for reporting illness. Many other states followed with legislation similar to the Illinois law.

1911 - Hamilton joins the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Now known as the Department of Labor, Hamilton started working for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as an investigator and continued her “shoe-leather” epidemiology, talking to factory owners, foremen and workers. Her writings on a variety of chemicals and safety issues appeared frequently in government reports, scientific journals and popular mainstream publications like Atlantic Monthly. Her reputation as a pioneer and leader in the field of workplace health and safety made her a candidate of choice for Harvard’s School of Public Health.

1919 - Hamilton becomes an assistant professor at Harvard

At age 50, Hamilton taught the first courses in industrial medicine at Harvard. Despite her nationally renowned work in the field, the dean had to convince the school’s president to hire her as their first female professor. Hamilton published dozens of studies and consulted with the Department of Labor and General Electric. One of her most important studies examined the link between exposure to high levels of mercury and its effect on the nervous system, with mercury poisoning leading to mental illness. Her study was based on felt hat makers, hence the term “mad as a hatter.” Hamilton retired from Harvard at age 66.

1934 - Hamilton publishes Industrial Toxicology

Hamilton’s textbook Industrial Toxicology was considered a groundbreaking work in public health. In 1946 she teamed up with a woman she had mentored, industrial hygienist and researcher Harriet Hardy, to revise the book. The book is now called Hamilton and Hardy’s Industrial Toxicology. It provided a comprehensive inventory of toxic chemicals used in the workplace. The book is still relevant today and the sixth edition came out in 2015.

1940 - Hamilton publishes “Occupational Poisoning in the Viscose Rayon Industry”

Even though she was retired, she continued to do research. She published an article, an investigation into artificial silk, with the U.S. Department of Labor. She documented how carbon disulfide, an industrial compound used to make viscose rayon, affected the workers who used it. This included manic-depressive episodes, paralysis and loss of vision. In her hunt for evidence of neurological illnesses, she searched records at psychiatric hospitals. She also conducted interviews with workers, many in secret because factory owners were resistant to her investigations.

1970 - Hamilton dies; OSHA is created soon after

Hamilton died in her home in Hadlyme, Connecticut, on Sept. 22, 1970, at age 101.

Three months later, President Richard Nixon signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act that created OSHA, the federal agency overseeing workplace safety. Many credit Hamilton, often referred to as the “mother of occupational medicine” as laying the groundwork for OSHA. “The legacy of Alice Hamilton is something that has been a kind of North Star for us in occupational safety and health,” said Joseph Hughes, a deputy assistant secretary at OSHA. “Because she singularly focused on shedding light onto a problem that had been ignored, or just not dealt with or not cared about.”

More About Our Questioner

Our question-asker Julia Florek Carlson threw herself into her class history project on Alice Hamilton, winning an award for her performance. She literally wore multiple hats for that performance — playing Alice Hamilton and a National Lead Company factory owner reluctant to make changes to protect his workers (see photos).

What Julia learned about Alice Hamilton’s scientific research and impact on public health seems to have planted a seed.

Julia is now a freshman at Notre Dame majoring in biochemistry, with an interest in public health. She sees Alice Hamilton as a STEM role model — but also a model of how to live a life committed to social justice.

“Her relentless drive and motivation to succeed and just be an agent for positive change in society and help lift other people up and do what's right, that really left a lasting impression on me,” Julia said.

To read more about Alice Hamilton’s life, check out these books:

  • Exploring the Dangerous Trades, Alice Hamilton’s 1943 autobiography

  • Alice Hamilton: A Life in Letters, Barbara Sicherman

  • The Education of Alice Hamilton, Joseph Brain, Matthew C. Ringenberg, and William C. Ringenberg

  • Industrial Toxicology, Alice Hamilton and Harriet Hardy

Edie Rubinowitz is a journalist and journalism professor at Northeastern Illinois University. You can follow her on Twitter at @edierubinowitz

The digital version of this story was produced by Curious City’s multimedia intern Natalie Dalea. You can follow her on Twitter at @nmdalea

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