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Hamilton, Alice, M.D.

in: People

Alice Hamilton, M.D. (1869–1970) — Physician, Pioneer in the Field of Toxicology and Occupational Illness, Social Reformer, Peace Activist and Resident of Hull House

Introduction: Dr. Alice Hamilton was a leading expert in the field of occupational health. She was a pioneer in the field of toxicology, studying occupational illnesses and the dangerous effects of industrial metals and chemical compounds on the human body. She published numerous benchmark studies that helped raise awareness of dangers in the workplace. In 1919 she became the first woman appointed to the faculty at Harvard Medical School, serving in their new Department of Industrial Medicine. She also worked with the state of Illinois, the U.S. Department of Commerce, and the League of Nations on various public health issues.

Alice Hamilton, M.D.
Alice Hamilton, M.D.
Library of Congress
Digital ID ggbain 29701

Education and Career: Alice Hamilton was born on February 27, 1869 to Montgomery Hamilton and Gertrude (Pond) Hamilton, in Fort Wayne, Indiana. She was the second of four girls, all of whom remained close throughout their childhood and into their professional careers. She was home schooled and completed her early education at a finishing school. In 1893 she received her doctor of medicine degree from the University of Michigan Medical School, and then completed internships at the Minneapolis Hospital for Women and Children and the New England Hospital for Women and Children.

Many Americans traveled to Europe to pursue advanced scientific training in the late nineteenth century. Hamilton studied bacteriology and pathology at universities in Munich and Leipzig from 1895 to 1897, when she returned to the U.S., she continued her postgraduate studies at the Johns Hopkins University Medical School. In 1897 she moved to Chicago, where she became a professor of pathology at the Woman’s Medical School of Northwestern University.

Soon after moving to Chicago, Hamilton became a member and resident of Hull House, the settlement house founded by social reformer Jane Addams. Living side by side with the poor residents of the community, she became increasingly interested in the problems workers faced, especially occupational injuries and illnesses. The study of ‘industrial medicine’ (the illnesses caused by certain jobs) had become increasingly important since the Industrial Revolution of the late nineteenth century had led to new dangers in the workplace. In 1907, Hamilton began exploring existing literature from abroad, noticing that industrial medicine was not being studied much in America. She set out to change this, and in 1908 published her first article on the topic.

In 1910 Hamilton was appointed to the newly formed Occupational Diseases Commission of Illinois, the first such investigative body in the United States. For the next decade she investigated a range of issues for a variety of state and federal health committees. Relying primarily on “shoe leather epidemiology” and the emerging laboratory science of toxicology, she pioneered occupational epidemiology and industrial hygiene in the United States. Her findings were so scientifically persuasive that they caused sweeping reforms, both voluntary and regulatory, to improve the health of workers.

Investigations for which she is best known include carbon monoxide poisoning in steelworkers, mercury poisoning in hatters, and “dead fingers” syndrome among laborers using jackhammers. In her field investigations, she applied precepts of scientific integrity and prudent public health practice that continue to influence the discipline of occupational health. These include the necessity for a strict definition of the disease problem, a thorough understanding of the industrial processes involved, and on-the-spot reporting of findings and recommendations.

In 1919, Hamilton was hired as assistant professor in a new Department of Industrial Medicine at Harvard Medical School, making her the first woman appointed to the faculty there. A New York Tribune article celebrated the appointment with the dramatic headline: “A Woman on Harvard Faculty—The Last Citadel Has Fallen—The Sex Has Come Into Its Own,” but Hamilton was still discriminated against as a woman, excluded from social activities and the all-male graduation processions.

From 1924 to 1930 she served as the only woman member of the League of Nations Health Committee. She also returned to Hull-House every year until Jane Addams’s death in 1935.

After her retirement from Harvard in 1935, Hamilton served as a medical consultant to the U. S.Division of Labor Standards, and retained her connections to Harvard as professor emerita. In 1995 her extensive contributions to public health were commemorated by a U.S. Postal Service’s commemorative stamp.

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How to Cite this Article (APA Format): The National Library of Medicine. (n.d.). Alice Hamilton, M.D. (1869–1970) — Physician, pioneer in the field of toxicology and occupational illness, social reformer, peace activist and resident of Hull House. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from