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Celebrating the life of Dr. Alice Hamilton 45 years after her death

Sep 22, 2015

Alice Hamilton, pioneer in the field of occupational medicine

This week marks the 45th anniversary of Dr. Alice Hamilton’s death.

Hamilton was a leading expert in the field of occupational health and a pioneer in toxicology. She lived to the age of 101.

Dr. Howard Markel tells us that Hamilton lived and worked through a period of time that allowed her to break ground as both a physician and a woman.

He describes her achievements as “magnificent.”

According to Markel, Hamilton became “very interested” in the Social Gospel movement, a religious movement in the late 19th century that sought to improve American society through the application of Christian values.

“Helping immigrants assimilate, helping the downtrodden get homes or jobs or things like that,” Markel says.

Markel tells us she became further enamored with the work done by the women who founded Hull House, a settlement house that welcomed newly-arrived European immigrants, “where she later worked and lived for about 22 years,” and decided that she wanted to become a doctor.

She graduated from the University of Michigan, one of few schools at the time that accepted women into its medical program.

Markel says she worked hard to stand out in a field dominated by men.

“She made sure she had all the accomplishments to be a first-rate physician and researcher and scholar,” he says, spending time at the University of Minnesota, at Johns Hopkins, and in the laboratories of Leipzig, among others.

“She was the very model of a major physician, yet she had a hard time getting regular gigs because of her gender,” he says.

Markel tells us Hamilton was the first woman appointed to the Harvard faculty. "She also said famously ... 'I may have been the first woman appointed, but I wasn’t the first woman who deserved to be appointed.'”

Occupational health was not a field of study that anyone had any real interest in, according to Markel, during a time where extremely dangerous work environments were the norm.

Hamilton tackled the topic with gusto.

She acted as sort of a secret agent, getting into factories and workplaces to observe firsthand the sort of dangers workers were routinely exposed to, according to Markel.

“She also was well-schooled enough in chemistry and toxicology to do studies, you know, what does exposure to picric acid do to you? Or, lead paint … or a variety of other toxins that we now know to be very deadly,” Markel says.

While her work did have a significant effect on the state of workplace safety, Markel tells us there are many places in the world today that still struggle to provide safe and fair work environments.

“She did move the needle, but we still have many problems both in the United States and abroad,” Markel says. “Alice Hamilton’s work, I think she would say, is still undone."

Dr. Howard Markel tells us more about the life and work of Dr. Alice Hamilton in our conversation above.

-Ryan Grimes, Stateside