top of page


Reminds Me

Everyday, it seems, I encounter something that reminds me of a historic woman who I have written about. Most recently it was as I was driving south on the New Jersey Turnpike alongside the New Jersey Meadowlands, a large ecosystem of wetlands that was once a dumping grounds for toxic industrial waste.

Who came to mind?

Alice Hamilton, M.D. (1869-1970) one of the women I wrote about in Adventurous Women: Eight True Stories About Women Who Made A Difference. Here is a post I wrote in 2015 when I was blogging on a different platform. There is a comment at the end by my longtime friend Sue Kirch. Sue is a scientist with a Ph.D. from Harvard University where, in 1919, Alice Hamilton was appointed the first female faculty member with three limitations: 1. no admittance to the Faculty Club, 2. no participation in academic processions at Commencement, 3. no faculty tickets to the football games.

The first image is a statue by Tony Frudakis representing Alice Hamilton in the Hamilton Sculpture Garden, Headwaters Park, Fort Wayne, Indiana (There are also statues of Alice's sister Edith, a scholar and author of the classic book, The Greek Way, and her cousin Alice, a community activist. All three statues are on my To Visit List.)

Below is my earlier post, augumented by new images (click to enlarge) and a link to a clip from a 1963 interview with Alice Hamilton.

Very early one morning, many years ago, Alice Hamilton, a slightly built, unassuming looking medical doctor with expressive, dark eyes, went to the train station to find some canaries--not the birds, but workers on their way to a factory that manufactured explosives. They were dubbed canaries because their skin had a yellowish-brownish cast from exposure to yellow picric acid, a chemical compound used to make explosives. Workers were routinely told that chemicals used in manufacturing were safe, including lead, arsenic, phosphorus, radium, mercury, and picric acid. But Dr. Alice Hamilton knew that was not true. Determined to gather irrefutable evidence, she conducted groundbreaking investigations.

In 1911, she started researching the lead industry and the rubber industry. Tirelessly Dr. Hamilton inspected factories; interviewed chemists and pharmacists; talked with factory managers, (who routinely denied any workers were sick); scrutinized hospital records; and got first-hand, candid information from sick workers by visiting in their homes. She wrote reports in which she documented the dangers, listing the symptoms of poisoning, such as convulsions from lead poisoning and recommending safety measures. (Right image: Alice Hamilton, 25, the year she graduated from th University of Michigan Medical School.)

Then she was asked by the National Research Council to investigate the explosive industries. But World War I had begun and the factories’ locations were secret. That is why Dr. Alice Hamilton was on the lookout for canaries that she could follow to the factory. Other clues she looked for were “great clouds of yellow and orange fumes, nitrous gases which . . . . rose to the sky from picric-acid and nitrocellulose plants.” She checked out everything she heard, including gossip. Then she wrote another detailed report of her findings and recommendations for safety protections. Once again Dr. Alice Hamilton had fulfilled her mission to do “what could be done to protect” workers. By the end of the war in 1918, Dr. Hamilton said, “industrial medicine had at last become respectable.”

In 1919, the all-male Harvard University appointed her as an assistant professor in the new department of industrial medicine. Newspapers from Massachusetts to Hawaii reported the news. The image below is from The New York Times, March 12, 1919, p. 6.

Right Image: Times Herald (Olean, New York), March 27, 1919, p. 5. The syndicated columnist Edith Moriarty dubbed Hamilton's appointment as "Another 'Only Woman,'" ( Moriarty's column or just the section "Another 'Only Woman'" appeared in many newspapers. (The entire column makes for illuminating reading regarding the "days of the 'only woman" and the post-World War I effort to redomesticate women, despite their "enviable records"!)

Continuing her sleuthing, Dr. Alice Hamilton investigated many industries, including copper mines in Arizona, where she climbed down eighty-foot ladders and walked a narrow path around the edge of a tank filled with “evil-looking, dark, bubbling acid.”A prolific writer, Dr. Alice Hamilton wrote articles, reports, and her autobiography, Exploring the Dangerous Trades. “For me,” she once wrote, "the satisfaction is that things are better now, and I had some part of it.”

Alice Hamilton lived to be 101 years old. (Left image: The Bangor Daily News, (Bangor, Maine) Sept. 24, 1970, p. 28

Today Dr. Alice Hamilton is considered the founder of what is known as the field of occupational health and safety. The many awards and honors she received during her lifetime continued after her death—a U.S. postage stamp, honoring her was issued in 1995, the Alice Hamilton Laboratory for Occupational Safety and Health was dedicated in 1987, and a bust by sculpture Robert Shure was unveiled in 2018 in the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. (Left image)


Sue Kirch: I love thinking about Dr. Hamilton as an “adventurous woman”! The idea that a life of asking questions, doubting authority, and conducting methodical investigations to build explanations is adventurous is a compelling thesis. I can see how readers could be empowered by that message. The fact that Dr. Hamilton catalyzed such fundamental (and essential) changes in how we think about the world and our actions is a great accomplishment. Indeed she did have a huge role in making things better for everyone. As a bench scientist, I was always grateful for the required OSHA safety rules that governed the lab chemicals and several years ago when I was working on my house I almost lost all of my fingers when an extension ladder slid shut and pinned my hand. The design of the ladder had been through OSHA inspection to ensure that fingers would not be sheared off in the very accident I had. I didn’t know that I should be giving thanks to Dr. Hamilton. Now I will. Great piece, Penny!

Link to a clip from a 1963 interview with Alice Hamilton:

22 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All

1 commentaire

Interesting and inspiring to make a gross understatement! Thanks for great work yourself, Penny.


bottom of page