Alice Hamilton (1869-1970) was the first female faculty member at Harvard Medical School and a pioneer in toxicology and occupational health, fields she became interested in after seeing first-hand the toll industrial work was taking on the women living with her at Jane Addams’ Hull House.
Hamilton was raised in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where she was homeschooled before attending a finishing school and then the University of Michigan Medical School. She got her doctorate of medicine in 1893 before traveling to Germany for advanced training in bacteriology and biology.
In 1897, she moved to Chicago to teach pathology at Northwestern University’s Woman’s Medical School. She started living at Hull House, a settlement house established by social reformer Jane Addams that sought to bring together the well-off and the poor. Hamilton noticed that the poor residents she was living with often suffered from health problems. She suspected that many of these problems were caused by dangerous working conditions including exposure to toxic chemicals but found that “industrial medicine” – the study of health problems caused by working conditions – was largely ignored in the U.S. – a fact she set out to change!
She published articles on the topic which helped raise awareness, leading to the gradual formation of commissions and departments focused on industrial and occupational medicine around the country. One such group was the Occupational Diseases Commission of Illinois, the first investigative commission of its sort, to which Hamilton was appointed in 1910. Hamilton was so influential in the burgeoning field that, in 1919, Harvard Medical School’s newly-formed Department of Industrial Medicine broke their all-male-faculty streak and hired her as an assistant professor.
She was the only woman serving on the League of Nations Health Committee from 1924-1930 and consulted for the U.S. Division of Labor Standards after retiring from Harvard in 1935. The Postal Service commemorated her with a stamp in 1995 and we’re commemorating her with a #WiSEWednesday profile!