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A woman who pioneered in researching workplace hazards

By Rosalie E. Dunbar / May 5, 1986



Exploring the Dangerous Trades: The Autobiography of Alice Hamilton, M.D., by Alice Hamilton, with a new forward by Barbara Sicherman. Boston: Northeastern University Press. 440 pp. $10.95, paper. This autobiography by one of the pioneer researchers of hazards in the workplace was first published in 1943, but its reappearance is especially welcome because it offers insights into how both companies and workers can achieve better conditions.

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Early on, Alice Hamilton explains that she chose to be a doctor not because she was ``scientifically minded,'' but because in that profession she ``could go anywhere'' and ``be quite sure that I could be of use.'' Her efforts to be ``of use'' reveal a compassionate individual with a sense of humor, keen discernment into human nature, and love for mankind. Although she was pursuing a career in pathology and bacteriology, the years she spent at Jane Addams's Hull House in Chicago led her in a different direction. While she was aiding the settlement house's efforts to provide social services, her work among the needy made her think that at least some of their maladies were work-related. Through these experiences, her interest in industrial toxicology grew. It eventually became her full-time vocation.

In 1910, Dr. Hamilton and several other doctors were asked by the governor of Illinois to survey work-related diseases. To reduce the task to a manageable size, they limited their study to industries associated with lead, arsenic, brass, carbon monoxide, the cyanides, and turpentine. Although they could not demand admittance to the plants, many owners cooperated, and improvements were made. After Hamilton had visited what she calls ``the worst white-lead factory I have ever seen,'' she wrote to the head of the corporation. Within two years, there had been substantial changes. She comments:

``This was one of the many experiences which convinced me that the iniquitous conditions I so often found were not a proof of deliberate greed or even of actual indifference, but rather of ignorance and an indolent acceptance of things as they are.''

During World War I, Dr. Hamilton's work for the United States government included investigating hazards associated with explosives such as picric acid, fulminate of mercury, TNT, and nitroglycerin. After the war, she continued her studies of industrial conditions and became the first woman on the faculty of the Harvard Medical School.

Throughout the book, Dr. Hamilton presents her experiences with a delightful wryness. And as the account of her life progresses, one comes to know her not as an abstract historical figure, but as a living, breathing individual who wanted to do good -- and who succeeded.