Blog STEM Women in Science

Dr. Alice Hamilton’s Battle Against Industrial Poisons

The shortage of regulation in American business in the course of the early Twentieth Century is the stuff of horrific legend – from the grotesqueries of the meat business as unveiled by Upton Sinclair to the addition of sub-standard and sometimes hazardous supplies to youngsters’s milk within the dairy business, we have now many examples of the consequences of that era’s industrial negligence on the shoppers of its merchandise.  Fast to outrage when introduced with health risks to themselves in the consuming of a product, nevertheless, the American individuals have been far more durable to stir when it came to the health risks to the creators of these merchandise.

The economic staff of America, who have been either too poor or too ethnic to awaken the sympathy of a goods-hungry public, have been in determined need of someone with the scientific rigor to impress the house owners of their factories, the great breeding to speak on an equal footing with reform-minded members of the upper class, and the investigative gumption to tread where others wouldn’t looking for medical answers.  In 1910, they received their somebody in the form of a forty yr previous doctor who had, up to that time, thought-about herself a diffuse failure, but who would thereafter earn a world fame as the foremost professional on the manufacturing processes and chemical compounds that hurt industrial staff.

Alice Hamilton (1869-1970) came from an upper class family of pronounced genius.  Her sister Edith was a historian whose volumes The Greek Means, The Roman Approach, and Mythology are nonetheless in demand for his or her rich evocations of the classical previous, and her other siblings consisted of other poly-lingual overachievers with distinguished achievements in the realms of classical literature and art.  Wealthy enough to have leisure to pursue the works lining their father’s luxurious library, the Hamilton youngsters delighted in each other’s intellectually competitive company, gathering in circles within the backyard to read Dante aloud within the unique.

Conservative mental refinement was the expectation for the Hamilton brood, and so it was with a lot consternation that Alice’s choice to review drugs was met.  Blood and sinews and numerous unspeakable seepages have been fantastic for different women to review, maybe, women with out cultural prospects or social duties, however for a Hamilton?  Regardless of the disapproval of her family, Alice endured in her selection, reasoning that, of all the professions, there’s none so welcome in any nook of the world as that of a physician.  She knew she needed to go places, and help individuals, and that she did not have the temperament for the missionary work which she abstractly admired, and so a medical profession seemed the logical next neatest thing.

She studied with out incident on the University of Michigan (the gender line for ladies medical college students having long since been crossed) and graduated in 1893 only to seek out herself thrust right into a world that had but few options for a lady doctor excited about bacteriological analysis.  She underwent her internship at Northwestern Hospital for Ladies and Youngsters and then took up a place on the illustrious New England Hospital for Ladies and Youngsters solely to seek out that its follow not lived up to its fame.  The hospital was awash with medical interns and docs in high quantities however of routinely low high quality, and Hamilton discovered herself underused and undervalued until she was finally transferred to the dispensary and gained thereby the prospect to go out and work instantly locally.

To a lady bred among comfort and the refined condescensions of American Victorianism, slum life was a stomach-churning revelation.  Ladies giving start to babies out of wedlock went from being the stuff of illustrated cautionary tales to a dwelling reality which no amount of overstuffed moralizing might set straight.  Individuals made mistakes and suffered and died in consequence, and judging them for his or her actions, as she was wont to do when she first arrived, quickly took second place to compassion and care.

What Hamilton was making an attempt to puzzle out in these years was tips on how to combine social service with research with a medical profession, a problem that may solely grow extra difficult in 1897 when she took up a place as a professor of pathology at Northwestern College’s Lady’s Medical Faculty.  Concurrently, she utilized for residency at Hull House, the famous settlement founded by Jane Addams in 1889 to provide the poor some entry to the privileges of the higher courses and the higher courses a chance to make use of their expertise to instantly make a difference within the lives of individuals.  She threw herself into the work of creating and educating new courses, trying to hold out research, and involving herself in all the many social tasks that originated from Hull House, and found that devoting herself to 3 things directly appeared to only end in by no means being glad with something that she did.  Her male colleagues who did not have the duties of Hull Home might attain much higher renown in research, while the social staff at Hull Home seemed a lot more competent than her in what they did that by 1910 Hamilton was desperately at a loss for what to make of her life.

Thankfully, a suggestion got here her method that yr from the governor of Illinois to serve as a medical investigator for a fee on occupational illnesses that had been shaped two years earlier but had as of but completed little.  Via Hull House Hamilton had been constructing a fame as a radical and deeply resourceful illness sleuth, who had traced a typhoid fever outbreak to slack regulation of undrained bogs in Chicago’s poorer districts back in 1903.  Being a medical investigator proved to be the right profession for Alice Hamilton, whose first activity involved uncovering the medical risks faced by staff in the lead business.  She scoured hospital data, visited sick staff in their houses, and gathered info from insurance coverage agents, firm docs, local docs, and European industrial periodicals until she knew the chemical compounds and methods of each course of that both produced or employed lead in trendy American business.  She detailed a system the place staff toiled in rooms full of lead dust because American corporations refused to make use of the submerged methods of England and German business or even give their staff simple respiration masks and coveralls, have been frequently tasked with dangerously stuffing white lead by hand into barrels, after which took their breaks in lunchrooms where the meals itself was coated in smears of lead.

Hamilton’s presents lay not solely in the thoroughness of her medical and chemical information, or the resourcefulness with which she tracked down causes and results that others have been actively making an attempt to hide, however in her positive sense of the stability between publicity and diplomacy.  She was not often turned away from a manufacturing unit because house owners knew that she never exaggerated her claims and would all the time give them options for how you can enhance the lot of their staff earlier than resorting to the courtroom of public opinion.  She believed that house owners, correctly educated and fairly spoken to, would implement enhancements that have been in the perfect pursuits of themselves and their staff, and sometimes was proven right.  That stated, if the house owners didn’t present themselves amenable to vary, she had no worry of publicizing the illnesses and deaths that resulted from their persistent negligence, allying with the Division of Well being to create higher laws for businesses that may not regulate themselves.

Her ironclad findings showed the risks of not solely lead exposure, however the mounting difficulty of commercial benzine use, the poisons employed in the manufacturing of viscous rayon, and the toxins related to the creation of munitions in World Warfare I.  Within a decade, she had made herself the absolute world authority on the biochemical risks of the fashionable industrial manufacturing unit, a proven fact that was made clear in 1919 when Harvard Medical Faculty broke its centuries-long ban on ladies professors by inviting her to hitch the newly shaped Department of Industrial Drugs, a position she maintained until being pressured to semi-retire in 1935.

Between her place at Harvard and her evolving portfolio of presidency commissions, Hamilton had turn out to be business’s go-to scientist for honestly evaluating the risks of their new chemical processes.  Because of Hamilton’s place as the dwelling connection between academia, authorities, and business, American security requirements slowly began creeping in the direction of and ultimately equaling these of Europe.  Casualties at lead factories that have been annually measured in the lots of earlier than her time sank to the only digits, radium poisoning was investigated and detailed, and routine medical exams for staff have been built-in into the policies of the extra hazardous industries.

An innovator in drugs, Hamilton was also fearless in the public realm, standing by Jane Addams’s aspect as a pacifist whereas abuse was thrown upon them each by an America drunk on the prospect of getting into World Struggle I.  She traveled to the Soviet Union in 1924 and reported back favorably on their advanced staff’ health initiatives and gender equality to hissing audiences, and visited Nazi Germany in 1933 and 1938, which resulted in a collection of articles lambasting the rise of fascism in Europe.  She spoke out for the creation of significant baby labor legal guidelines, and for a wise strategy in the direction of birth control schooling as a means of mitigating the distress of the tenements.  All the time claiming to hate battle, she was incapable of backing down earlier than nice moral wrongs regardless of the price to herself, which earned her the grudging respect of her more conservative relations, and a place on the federal government’s suspected socialist agitator listing nicely into her nineties.

She was sought after as a speaker for her means to extemporaneously produce emotionally stirring but scientifically rigorous speeches to audiences of every instructional degree, while her books on industrial drugs weren’t only crucial successes and greatest sellers, however stood for many years as normal texts in that subject.  The six many years that separated her entry into industrial drugs in 1910 and her demise in 1970 saw the situation of the worker evolve from that of a being of lead-coated lungs for whom even a set of work coveralls was thought-about too extravagant a company expense to a intently monitored human federally protected by the Occupational Health and Security Act (or OSHA, handed the yr of her demise) from the cavalcade of chemical, vibrational, thermal, sonic, and sanitary threats that Alice Hamilton, the lady who believed she had nothing to offer, had given her life to discovering and documenting.

Dr. Alice Hamilton died in 1970 at the age of 101.

Lead picture by way of Library of Congress


FURTHER READING:  Hamilton wrote an autobiography in 1943 however I might add Barbara Sicherman’s Alice Hamilton: A Life in Letters to get the entire story.  There’s lots of household gossip in those letters that in all probability gained’t interest the reader who just needs to know the story of commercial drugs’s heady pioneering days, but for these eager to see the evolution of Hamilton from a self-doubting scientist working herself to exhaustion for no discernible finish to a world authority speaking with the heads of business and government who’re palpably falling over themselves for her opinions, it is deeply satisfying.

And for more awesome Ladies in Science comics, take a look at the archive and my books, Illustrated Ladies in Science – Quantity 1, 2 and 3