Alice Hamilton lived a long and rich life as a pioneer in the field of occupational health. She was born in 1869 to Montgomery Hamilton and Gertrude Hamilton in New York City, New York, and raised in Fort Wayne, Indiana. In Fort Wayne, she was homeschooled in an insulated environment by her wealthy family. She had three sisters close to her age and one younger brother, nicknamed “Quint” because he was the fifth child in the family.
Alice’s early education was fragmented and incomplete. Because of her father’s lack of interest in mathematics, science, American history and American literature, and her mother’s disapproval of the grueling hours of public schooling, her early instruction was almost entirely in languages and classical literature. She developed an early interest in becoming a medical missionary, reasoning that it was a profession that would allow her to travel and still be useful. At seventeen, Alice attended Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Connecticut to finish her early education, as was family tradition. Here, she received what she later termed the “world’s worst” education; she learned mainly through rote memorization topics that she already knew. Following graduation from Miss Porter’s, Alice and her sister Edith decided to become career women because of their family’s dwindling finances. Alice decided to pursue medicine. She later explained, “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.”
Alice studied one year of anatomy at a medical college in Fort Wayne.Then she matriculated at the University of Michigan Medical school, where she earned her degree in 1893. Following graduation, she took a whirlwind of internships, first at Northwestern Hospital for Women and Children, then in bacteriology and pathology in Leipzig, Germany, and then at John Hopkins Medical School.
Finally, she returned to Northwestern University in Chicago, where she served on the faculty of the Women’s Medical School. In 1919, she became the first woman faculty member at Harvard Medical School. At this time, women students weren’t even admitted. In Chicago, she had become involved with the work of Hull House, initially running a well-baby clinic for poor immigrant parents. She continued her work at the settlement house for 22 years.
In 1908, Alice Hamilton was appointed to the Illinois Commission of Occupational Diseases, the first public health commission of its kind in the United States. In 1911, she was appointed to the U.S Department of Labor, where she continued her work. Alice Hamilton’s importance to occupational medicine and to public health cannot be overstated. She was instrumental in alerting the public to the dangers of lead carbon monoxide, phosphorous, and numerous other hazardous chemicals, when there weren’t yet laws in place to protect workers from these substances. More than that, she got employers to adopt more humane and healthy business practices. In her autobiography, she details how without any formal authority, she changed the minds of employers like Edward Cornish, who didn’t believe that his workers were getting lead poisoning until Alice Hamilton personally investigated the lives of former immigrant workers who had died by dredging up their hospital records and interviewing their wives.
After a long life advocating for public health and protections for the impoverished, Alice Hamilton died in 1970 at the age of 101. Every occupational health physician and public health expert today owes a great deal to the passionate, dedicated, and pioneering work of Alice Hamilton.
Alice Hamilton, Exploring the Dangerous Trades: The Autobiography of Alice Hamilton, M.D. (Boston, Mass. : Northeastern University Press, 1985).
“Alice Hamilton student portrait,” ca. 1893, University of Michigan Student Portraits.