Over the course of her distinguished and ground-breaking career, Dr. Alice Hamilton specialized in industrial toxicology and was the first female professor at Harvard Medical School. She retired at age 65 and settled in Hadlyme, CT where she continued to be active as an advocate for social justice and occupational safety for another 36 years.
Alice Hamilton grew up in Fort Wayne, Ind., the second of four daughters of Montgomery and Gertrude Pond Hamilton. One of her sisters was the classicist Edith Hamilton. After being taught at home, Alice Hamilton was educated at Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Conn., the Fort Wayne College of Medicine, and the University of Michigan, where she received her medical degree in 1893. In 1897, she was appointed a professor of pathology at Northwestern University’s Woman’s Medical School in Chicago. At the same time, she became an active member and resident of Jane Addams’ Hull House, a center dedicated to improving the lives of the working poor. Although working full-time at Northwestern, Dr. Hamilton opened a well-baby clinic at Hull House. Perhaps more importantly, the extreme poverty and constant misery she observed during her time there gave Hamilton the opportunity to combine her expertise as a physician with the prospect of participation in a great social justice movement.
Hamilton thus became an expert in industrial medicine at a time in history when American cities were being transformed by factories, pollution and a great influx of immigrant labor. While at Hull House, she began her research into industrial diseases, establishing connections between public health and unsanitary, dangerous working conditions. In 1908, she was named to the Illinois Commission of Occupational Diseases; three years later she received an appointment to the United States Bureau of Labor to investigate the dangers of exposure to lead. The landmark surveys Hamilton undertook exposed the risks associated with many substances commonly found in the workplace.
During the World War I, Hamilton accompanied Addams to The Netherlands and throughout Europe to present their proposals for peace and disarmament. After the war, Hamilton was appointed to the faculty of the newly-established Department of Industrial Medicine at Harvard Medical School—the first female professor in the school’s history. During this time, she served two terms on the Health Committee of the League of Nations, lectured and wrote extensively and continued to work on occupational and industrial safety. Her books included Industrial Poisons in the United States and Industrial Toxicology.
Dr. Hamilton retired from Harvard in 1935 and moved to Hadlyme, publishing her autobiography Exploring the Dangerous Trades in 1943. She remained active in politics and social causes until her death at age 100 in 1970. Her lifelong devotion to occupational safety resulted in legislation and government regulations that led directly to improved health for generations of workers. Dr. Hamilton died just months before the passage of the landmark Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1970, which created OSHA. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1973. In 1987 the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health [NIOSH] dedicated its primary research facility to Dr. Hamilton and began awarding the Alice Hamilton Award for outstanding research in the field. She was inducted into the Safety and Health Hall of Fame in 1992 and in 1995 the U.S. Postal Service honored her distinguished service with a commemorative stamp. In 1997, she was inducted into the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame.
During This Time
1921 - 1945: Prosperity, Depression, & War
Industrial growth, economic expansion, and plenty of consumer goods gave women more purchasing power and pleasure in the 1920s. Women gained political office, but after achieving the right to vote the Women’s Movement fractured over the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The percentage of married women in the workforce doubled, though in menial jobs, while women of color had few opportunities. The media’s message about the home was ambivalent. For daughters, the young flapper was glamorized in movies starring Clara Bow who had It (sex appeal). But the modern mother, equipped with widely-advertised appliances, was expected to keep house and raise children with new efficiency.
The prosperity of the twenties contrasted with the hardships of the 1930s following the 1929 stock market crash. Farm families in the Dust Bowl, suffering from drought and crop failures, fled to California where they worked as migratory laborers. As impoverished families across America struggled, desertion rose (but not divorce, which was expensive), and family size grew smaller. Women’s jobs were largely confined to low-paying domestic labor, garment factories, and food-processing plants, all further segregated by race and ethnicity.
In the midst of the Great Depression, President Roosevelt, helped by wife Eleanor, brought strong leadership toward recovery with the New Deal. Professional women were included in federal projects, and work relief programs gave help to poor women. The Social Security Act of 1935 owed much to Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, the first woman to serve in the Cabinet. African-American Mary McLeod Bethune, using her executive position in the National Youth Administration, pressured the administration to provide equal pay for blacks in all programs.
World War II deeply influenced women’s lives. Sex-segregated labor diminished, as symbolized in the poster of “Rosie the Riveter.” Women were accepted into the military, though the public was concerned about the loss of femininity. Defense industries were reluctant to admit women, but as men were drafted, the resistance eroded. Older, married women provided the largest number of new workers. Black, Mexican, and Chinese women had new opportunities, but Japanese women suffered internment in camps. With demobilization, women were laid off, but many were soon back on the job. Their role still was defined in the home, but the war had increased women’s activities in the workplace.
Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.