Alice Hamilton: Pioneer in Industrial Toxicology

    February, 2004:

    Alice Hamilton, (1869-1970), was a physician, an industrial hygienist and the first female faculty member at Harvard University. She is most well known for her field work in investigating toxic hazards in the workplace during the first half of the twentieth century. Among her investigations were carbon monoxide poisoning in steel workers, mercury poisoning in hatters and lead poisoning amongst workers in several industries.

    What led this pioneering doctor into these workplaces in the early 1900s? She had moved into Jane Addams Hull House and started a well baby clinic for the poor families in the local neighborhood. As she became aware of the health issues faced by these families, she began to search for the causes of these debilitating illnesses.

    As a physician, she applied her knowledge of the byproducts of the industrial processes then in use and the effects of these byproducts on the human body to determine the specific causes of many workplace-related illnesses. In 1910 she was asked to lead the first statewide survey of industrial poisons in the state of Illinois. The results of this survey led to recommendations for workplace standards that would protect the health of the workers.

    She later worked as a special investigator for the federal Bureau of Labor and made recommendations for safer working conditions in many areas of the chemical industry. Among the additional areas that she investigated were the toxic effects of aniline dyes, radium, benzene, tetraethyl lead, sulfuric acid and carbon disulfide as used and generated in many industrial processes.

    Much of her time at Harvard was spent on these investigations as well as on writing two widely acclaimed textbooks in this new field. She also served as an officer in the first professional organization of industrial hygienists.

    Much additional recognition has come about after her death. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health named on of its laboratories after her and established an award in her name for occupational health and safety.  A U.S. postage stamp was released in her honor in 1995. In 2002, the American Chemical Society named Alice Hamilton and her work in Occupational Medicine a National Historic Chemical Landmark at Hull House here in Chicago.

    Why should you know about Alice Hamilton?  She was a woman who refused to let the overwhelming obstacle of her gender keep her from making major contributions to the health and well being of the working poor.  She was a scientist who made a difference.