Alice Hamilton Changed the World. Do You Know Her Story?

Categories: The Insider

Our workplace is a lot safer today than it was 100 years ago, thanks to the health and safety advocates who fought for protections for all workers. There is one person in particular, however, who took it upon herself to study job-related diseases and deaths among industrial workers at a time when no one else was paying any attention. 

Industrial disease was common in early 20th century. But Alice Hamilton’s investigations and benchmark reports helped raise awareness of dangers in the workplace and led to passage of laws and regulations that made the American workplace less dangerous. Workers’ compensation laws that we have today are a result of her work. So who was Alice Hamilton and how did she change the American workplace?

To commemorate the 48th anniversary of her passing, our union wants to recognize this pioneer who contributed so much to the health and safety of generations of workers.

Here are 5 things every worker should know about this amazing woman: 

  1. Her work started in Chicago

Hamilton was born in New York City in 1869 and raised in Fort Wayne, Indiana. She later earned a medical degree from the University of Michigan and completed hospital internships in Minneapolis and Roxbury, Mass. But her work in industrial toxicology didn’t start until she became a resident of Hull-House, the Chicago settlement house opened to recently arrived immigrants. The purpose of Hull House was to bring together people from different socio-economic backgrounds and provide immigrants and the poor social and educational opportunities.

It was at Hull-House that Hamilton witnessed the occupational injuries and illnesses of workers. She began treating poor immigrants for diseases that were often job-related. She documented the effect of lead and carbon monoxide exposure on workers’ health and publicized the high mortality rates of workers exposed to various industrial toxins.

During the 1902 typhoid epidemic in Chicago, she also identified inadequate sewage disposal, contaminated water, and flies as the causes of the disease. 

  1. The Illinois report and passage of the first occupational illness law

But her first formal investigation into the connection between occupation and disease started in 1910 when she became head of a survey on industrial illnesses in Illinois – the newly formed Illinois Commission on Occupational Diseases. The team studied arsenic, zinc smelting, brass manufacturing, turpentine, carbon monoxide, and lead – the most widely used industrial toxin. They visited factories and hospitals and interviewed people including union leaders to find instances of work-related illnesses. Lead was primarily used in paint manufacturing, enamelware, and pottery. Other industries also used lead to make products like glass and cigar tinfoil wraps. 

The Illinois report proved the connection between occupation and illness. As a result, the Illinois legislature passed an occupational disease law in 1911 requiring employers to implement safety procedures, provide monthly medical checkups for workers in certain trades, and report illnesses to the state. 

  1. Impact at the national level

Impressed by her work in Illinois, Commissioner of Labor Charles Neil asked Hamilton to do nationally what she had done for Illinois. As a federal agent, Hamilton studied hospital records and investigated factories to demonstrate the connection between specific illnesses and dangerous trades. 

During World War I, she conducted studies on the toxic chemicals used by the burgeoning war industries to produce explosives and recommended safety procedures. She also investigated a mysterious illness among munitions workers, identified the chemical that caused it, and recommended safety measures. 

  1. First woman on the Harvard faculty

In 1919, Hamilton accepted the position of assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, making her the first woman to be appointed to the Harvard faculty in any field. Her students were all men as Harvard still did not admit women. Even though she was a faculty member, she could not attend the Faculty Club, march in the commencement procession, or get football tickets. She taught only one semester a year so she could return to Hull-House and continue her investigations. 

At Harvard, she wrote Industrial Poisons in the United States, the first text in the field, and Industrial Toxicology.

  1. Life-long activist

Besides being an advocate for workers, Hamilton also crusaded for women’s suffrage, birth control, civil liberties, peace, and workers’ compensation. When she celebrated her 100th birthday, she received a telegram from President Nixon praising her contributions to industrial medicine. Hamilton passed away on Sept. 22, 1970 at the age of 101. Three months after her passing, Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

Join us to help protect health and safety of all workers  

Our union represents employees at the Department of Labor, which enforces health and safety laws for all workers in the country. We also represent employees at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) who continue the work Alice Hamilton pioneered by conducting scientific research, providing educational materials and training, and developing recommendations.

In addition, we work to protect the health and safety rights of federal employees and improve working conditions in the federal workplace. When you join our union, you’re joining the movement that calls for safe workplaces for all. So join us today

If you have health and safety questions or concerns, contact AFGE H&S Specialist Milly Rodriguez at [email protected].

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