Born in New York in 1869, Alice Hamilton was raised in Indiana. In her teens, Hamilton decided to become a doctor. In her autobiography, she offered an explanation for her choice: “I chose medicine,” she wrote, “not because I was scientifically-minded, for I was deeply ignorant of science. I chose it because as a doctor I could go anywhere I pleased — to far-off lands or to city slums — and be quite sure I could be of use anywhere.” She enrolled in medical school at the University of Michigan in 1892. The school stressed clinical and laboratory work and its curriculum emphasized scientific study. Michigan gave Hamilton her “first taste of emancipation,” she said, “and [she] loved it.”
Soon after, she went to Germany with her sister Edith. She intended to study bacteriology and pathology, but German universities did not admit women. They eventually gained permission to attend classes at universities in Munich and Leipzig so long as they remained “invisible” to the male students.
Hamilton returned to the United States in 1896 and enrolled at Johns Hopkins University. Then she landed a job teaching pathology at the Women’s Medical School of Northwestern University in Chicago.
In Chicago, Hamilton became a resident of Hull House – a settlement house designed to provide social services to the community. She studied typhoid and tuberculosis in the surrounding communities and treated poor immigrants for diseases often resulting from working conditions. In 1910, Hamilton studied the extent of industrial sickness in Illinois, particularly the high mortality rates in the lead and enamelware industries, rubber production, painting trades, and explosives and munitions. She served as managing director of the survey and made the study of lead industries her special focus. Hamilton later was asked by the Commissioner of Labor in the U.S. Department of Commerce to undertake a similar survey covering all the states.
Over the years, Hamilton’s many reports for the federal government dramatized the high mortality rates for workers in dangerous trades and brought about many changes at state and federal levels.
Hamilton died on September 22, 1970, at the age of 101. Three months later, Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act.
Suggested by: Sweta Batni
Written by Nicole Hutchison