10 Feb Dr. Alice Hamilton: An Industrial Hygiene Pioneer
One amazing woman in history was the incredible woman physician Dr. Alice Hamilton. As consumers, we support a market that allows us to obtain low-priced consumer products almost immediately with the push of a button. Often manufacturing of those consumer products comes at a cost to humanity and the health and wellness of human beings. Alice Hamilton was a prominent historical figure in the field of occupational health and wellness. No other individual, male or female, has made a more significant impact for the worker and the employer concerning job-related dangers to health than Dr. Alice Hamilton.
The Early Years
In 1869, Alice Hamilton was born in Ft Wayne, Indiana. Her household was privileged and had money to spare. Having these amenities did not make Alice Hamilton selfish, and she aspired to offer valuable public service to her community and the world. She was a poor student, especially in the areas of reading and science but she studied hard to make up for the disability.
In 1893, she earned her medical degree from the University of Michigan. According to the census around 1890, there were roughly 4,500 women physicians in the entire United States. It was extremely uncommon for a woman to be a doctor yet Alice Hamilton persevered. She never let being a woman in a patriarchal period stop her from obtaining her dream.
Industrial Hygiene Pioneer
In 1897, Dr. Hamilton started teaching pathology at Northwestern College’s Women’s Medical Organization in Chicago. In the “Windy City,” she lived in the Hull House. Jane Addams created the world-famous settlement residence in 1889. A settlement house brought the poor and the rich of society to live with each other in a social as well as physical setting to unite the two parts. As colleges opened to women, young female graduates brought their energy and excitement to the settlement house movement. Alice lived there for 22 years.
Deeply devoted to her service and work at Hull House, Dr. Hamilton continually took on investigations of typhoid, tuberculosis, tremors, and substance abuse in the Chicago area. In 1908, she was appointed to the Illinois Compensation of Occupational Diseases along with, in 1911, to the US Division of Labor. She started her lifelong endeavor of doing what she loved best which was “exploring the dangerous trades.”
In 1919, Hamilton came to be the first female professor, in ANY field, at Harvard Medical University. She would only work part-time throughout her career. The New York Times announced her appointment with the headline: “A Woman on Harvard Professors– The Last Citadel Has Fallen– The Sex Has Enter into Its Own.” Her rebuttal to this heading was:
“Yes, I am the first woman on the Harvard faculty—but not the first one who should have been appointed!”
Hamilton dealt with gender discrimination most of her life, especially in her career. She was continuously left out from social gatherings, was not allowed to enter the Harvard Union area, could not attend the Faculty Club, and did not receive football tickets for the big games. The awful thing was Hamilton was not allowed to march in the university’s commencement events with her male faculty counterparts. She did not get to enjoy her well-deserved graduation.
Hamilton testified at a Public Health and Wellness seminar on the continual use of lead in gasoline fuel in 1925. Because of her work, by 1988, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that 68 million children experienced toxic direct exposure from lead in leaded gas over the previous 60 years.
Like a thorough, detailed detective, Hamilton wandered the most dangerous parts of urban America, put herself in the middle of mines, and also manipulated herself into the center of factorieshesitant to stop her. Hamilton affectionately called these aggressive, unorthodox methods, “shoe-leather epidemiology.” Her process involved making personal visits to industrial factories, performing interviews with employees, and compiling detailed information about toxic occupational situations and using the emerging science of toxicology to analyze the results.
Hamilton was the pioneer of occupational health, safety and industrial hygiene. She developed the specialized field of industrial hygiene in the USA. Her findings from her research were scientifically convincing and meticulously articulated. Regarding her research, massive changes to health laws improved the health and wellness of the American worker. Extensive health reforms occurred because of her voice of research.
Hamilton’s best-known research included studies on:
- Tombstone carvers suffering an extremely high incidence of pulmonary tuberculosis.
- Workers becoming ill through contact with the explosive trinitrotoluene (TNT).
- Steelworkers became sick from carbon monoxide poisoning.
- Hatters became mentally ill from mercury poisoning and spawned the phrase “mad as a hatter.”
- Jackhammer operators suffering debilitating hand conditions.
- Limestone cutters suffering spastic anemia also known as “dead fingers.”
- Matchstick factory workers suffering phosphorus necrosis of the jaw commonly called “phossy jaw.”
She uncovered the health risks in unsafe factories and workplaces with unconventional and aggressive methods and became an advocate for a safe workplace. The industrial revolution sparked an interest in humanity for her. Hamilton continued to care about the American worker up until her death in 1970. She and left a long-lasting positive mark on public health and wellness.
We should all emulate her skills in listening diligently to those that assume they do not have a voice.
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