Alice Hamilton, one of the most remarkable women of American medicine, pioneered occupational epidemiology in the United States. She got her MD degree from the University of Michigan in 1893 and then pursued studies in bacteriology and pathology at universities in Munich and Leipzig and at Johns Hopkins. After joining the faculty of Northwestern University's Women's Medical School, she took up residence at Chicago's famed Hull House with social reformer Jane Addams.
In her autobiography, Exploring the Dangerous Trades, she described her experience at Hull House as arousing “my interest in industrial diseases. Living in a working class quarter with laborers and their wives, I could not fail to hear tales of the dangers that workmen faced…Illinois then had no legislation providing compensation for injuries or diseases caused by occupations….”
Hamilton was appointed in 1912 as director of the first statewide survey of occupational diseases in the United States. Her report of occupational lead poisoning in Illinois precipitated nationwide concern and led to her appointment as director of a national survey of industrial lead exposures. During the next 25 years, Hamilton identified health problems related to metal smelting, stone cutting, munitions manufacturing, copper and mercury mining, use of benzene solvents, viscose rayon manufacturing, and (in collaboration with others) radium dial painting.
Although Hamilton characterized herself as “not a very courageous person,” her field investigations frequently exposed her to danger. Her nighttime visit to a copper mine “began with a climb…to the third storey…on a sort of glorified ladder running up the outside wall, with open treads and a high hand rail on one side only….The acid was in enormous tanks and I was escorted around them on a narrow path…only a hand rail between me and that…bubbling acid…”
Alice Hamilton's social and political activism spanned 50 years, from her protests over the death sentences of Sacco and Vanzetti to the Vietnam War. She became the first woman to be appointed to the faculty of Harvard University and was commemorated for her public health efforts by the U.S. Postal Service in 1995 with a 55-cent stamp. She died in 1970 at the age of 101.