Hamilton Publishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In Industrial Poisons in the United States, Alice Hamilton summarized decades of research and opened the way to later legislation to control health hazards in the workplace.

Summary of Event

Alice Hamilton’s Industrial Poisons in the United States (1925) was the summation of research that she began in the 1890’s at Hull House, a Chicago settlement house opened in 1889 by Jane Addams. At its peak, the Hull House Hull House complex hosted activities for nine thousand nearby residents each week. Rooms were available for professional men and women who, while earning their living at other occupations, were committed to life and volunteer work among the immigrants who made up approximately three-quarters of Chicago’s population. The lives of many of these immigrants were marked by unsanitary and unsafe housing and working conditions, a high child mortality rate, and a death rate from contagious diseases disproportionate to the rate among the general population. [kw]Hamilton Publishes Industrial Poisons in the United States (1925) [kw]Publishes Industrial Poisons in the United States, Hamilton (1925) [kw]Industrial Poisons in the United States, Hamilton Publishes (1925) [kw]Hamilton Publishes Industrial Poisons in the United States (1925) Industrial Poisons in the United States (Hamilton, A.) Workplace safety;health hazards Medicine;industrial hazards Occupational diseases Diseases;occupational [g]United States;1925: Hamilton Publishes Industrial Poisons in the United States[06230] [c]Environmental issues;1925: Hamilton Publishes Industrial Poisons in the United States[06230] [c]Business and labor;1925: Hamilton Publishes Industrial Poisons in the United States[06230] [c]Publishing and journalism;1925: Hamilton Publishes Industrial Poisons in the United States[06230] Hamilton, Alice Addams, Jane Kelley, Florence Lathrop, Julia C.

Alice Hamilton.

(Library of Congress)

Hamilton earned her medical degree from the University of Michigan in 1893. After postgraduate years at The Johns Hopkins University and elsewhere (she studied bacteriology and pathology at the Universities of Leipzig and Munich), in 1897 she was appointed professor of pathology at the Women’s Medical School of Northwestern University in Chicago. When the school closed in 1902, she became a bacteriologist at the New Memorial Institute for Infectious Diseases. Living at Hull House, she joined a group of women who shared intellectual companionship and emotional support to a degree rarely experienced by educated women at that time. With no formal training in social work available to them, they created a methodology based on scrupulous accuracy and shared successful techniques.

Hamilton credited Florence Kelley with her political education; she learned from Julia C. Lathrop her highly successful, nonconfrontational techniques for eliciting information and cooperation in hostile environments. Together, these women became a significant force for change. They exercised considerable political influence, even though women in the United States did not receive the vote until 1920. Addams, for example, seconded Theodore Roosevelt’s nomination for president at the 1912 convention of the Progressive Party, and Hull House reformers had developed many of the principles of that party’s platform. Addams, who in 1931 became the first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, Nobel Prize recipients;Jane Addams[Addams] remained at the center of most Hull House activities, which usually originated as group projects. Lathrop became a specialist in institutional care, and in 1899, she joined with Kelley in the National Consumers League National Consumers League to fight industrial abuses. Kelley led investigations of sweatshop conditions.

Hamilton discovered her own specialization in 1902, when Addams encouraged her to investigate a typhoid epidemic. The Hull House area had the highest death rate in the city. Although her conclusions were wrong (she did not discover a leakage of raw sewage into the water supply), she developed the methodology she would use later, directly examining tenement buildings with illegal outdoor toilets, inadequate indoor facilities, and yards overflowing with rainwater and sewage; later, she would walk narrow catwalks over dangerous machinery and explore the depths of mines. In 1903, she began to examine the relationship between the unsanitary conditions of work among the poor, the long and irregular hours, and the prevalence of tuberculosis in the Hull House area; Addams and Hamilton presented a paper on the subject at the International Congress of Tuberculosis in 1908. Her reading of Sir Thomas Oliver’s Dangerous Trades (1907) introduced her to a large body of European literature on occupational diseases. Germany and England, in fact, had instituted factory inspection. She found no similar research in the United States.

In 1908, Hamilton was appointed to an Illinois commission on occupational diseases. The commission’s 1911 report included Hamilton’s research into the dangers of painting, smelting, refining, and the manufacture of storage batteries, among other subjects. She discovered seventy-seven industrial processes that exposed workers to lead poisoning and identified 358 unquestionable cases of workplace-related lead poisoning; her research was among the first to correlate hospital and pharmacy records with particular occupations. In 1912, she published Plumbism in the Industries of the Middle West. Plumbism in the Industries of the Middle West (Hamilton, A.)

In 1911, Hamilton was asked to undertake a national investigation for the U.S. Bureau of Labor (later the Department of Labor). Visiting all but three of the twenty-five white lead factories in the United States, she found that the United States had higher rates of lead poisoning than did European industry. She had no power to obtain admission into factories, and the U.S. government had no power of enforcement, but she persuaded owners and managers to allow her access, interviewed workers at their homes or saloons when she suspected illnesses were being hidden, and concluded that, next to tuberculosis, lead poisoning was the principal danger to the U.S. working classes. In 1914, she published Lead Poisoning in the Smelting and Refining of Lead, Lead Poisoning in the Smelting and Refining of Lead (Hamilton, A.) a bulletin for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. She was so effective in communicating with hostile industry owners and managers that she was often asked back to inspect workplaces after reforms were put in place as a result of her recommendations.

By 1915, Hamilton had become the foremost U.S. authority on industrial diseases. In 1919, she accepted a part-time appointment as professor of industrial medicine at the Harvard Medical School (after 1925, in the School of Public Health). She was the first woman professor there in any discipline; at that time, Harvard did not even admit women into its medical program.


Industrial Poisons in the United States was a textbook primarily addressed to physicians, who in the early twentieth century had little training or interest in the diagnosis of occupation-related diseases. In the book, Hamilton explained, in terms comprehensible to a layperson, the connection between occupation and disease, especially lead poisoning, and refuted the common argument that such diseases were caused by the unhygienic habits of ignorant immigrants. She was among the first to observe the effect of lead poisoning on the reproductive capabilities of both sexes. The publication not only firmly established Hamilton as the authority in the field but also opened the way to systematic academic and medical study of the subject. She followed the book with Industrial Toxicology in 1934, Industrial Toxicology (Hamilton, A.) which was revised with Harriet L. Hardy and reissued in 1949.

Hamilton became a member of or consultant to many organizations, including labor organizations. In 1924, she was appointed to the Health Committee of the League of Nations, the forerunner of the World Health Organization of the United Nations. Her appointment was in part the result of her work, with Addams, to publicize the disease and starvation she found in Europe after World War I. By then, Hamilton had long been a consultant to General Electric. Working with that corporation from the 1920’s to the 1930’s, she investigated less direct hazards than those she had studied earlier, opening the way to later research into the effect on workers of improper seating, poor lighting, and excessive fatigue. She persuaded the U.S. surgeon general to call two national conferences on industrial health hazards, one on tetraethyl lead in 1925 and the other on radium in 1928.

Working with labor groups, Hamilton was instrumental in obtaining the first labor contracts that prohibited the use of benzene in certain occupations. Largely because of her leadership, by 1935 fifteen states had legislated workers’ compensation for industrial diseases. Such legislation made the improvement of working conditions inevitable. Employers insured against claims that might be made against them under the new legislation; insurance companies protected themselves by insisting that the causes of claims be removed.

A controversial figure from the beginning, Hamilton provided a model for future reformers who might face similar condemnation and even censorship. As the Progressive Era gave way to conservative backlash after World War I, she was criticized as a socialist or communist, although, like most other Hull House workers, she favored improving the existing system rather than replacing it. Known for her outspoken defense of freedom of speech, she also worked extensively in the postwar years through organizations then considered controversial, including the League of Women Voters, League of Women Voters the Women’s Trade Union League, Women’s Trade Union League[Womens Trade Union League] and the National Consumers League; she also assisted the Worker’s Health Bureau, a group founded by radical women, during the 1920’s. She visited the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany and was alarmed by their repression of individual freedom, but she continued to criticize the United States for failing to join other nations in outlawing poison gas and germ warfare. Her advocacy of birth control also brought criticism. In a 1909 study of working-class families, immigrant and native-born, she had shown a relationship between the number of children and child health and mortality; she joined various committees to discuss the subject and spoke in 1925 at the Sixth International Neo-Malthusian and Birth Control Conference, organized by birth control advocate Margaret Sanger.

In 1932, Hamilton withstood efforts to censor Industrial Poisons in the United States. Five companies manufacturing fire extinguishers brought pressure on her publisher to remove the book from circulation and recall known copies, on the grounds that the book contained false material damaging to those marketing fire extinguishers of the carbon tetrachloride type. Hamilton stood her ground and the censorship failed, but her outspokenness and the controversy that swirled around her placed her on various lists of subversives until the 1960’s. The Federal Bureau of Investigation continued to keep records on her when she was in her nineties.

Asked to retire from Harvard in 1935, apparently because of age, she became a medical consultant to the Division of Labor Standards, formed the previous year by working-class advocate Frances Perkins, the secretary of labor and the first woman to hold a U.S. cabinet post. Hamilton continued her investigations until 1940, when her final report was published as a bulletin titled Occupational Poisoning in the Viscose Rayon Industry. Occupational Poisoning in the Viscose Rayon Industry (Hamilton, A.) She regularly lectured at colleges and universities, including Bryn Mawr, Tufts, the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard, and Connecticut College for Women. In 1944, she became president of the National Consumers League.

She died at her Connecticut home on September 22, 1970, at the age of 101. Three months later, Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), which first gave the government power to enforce safe conditions in the workplace. The law authorized on-site inspection, regulation, and enforcement; the related National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health established standards for chemical, dust, and toxic exposure. Unquestionably, Hamilton’s work had led the way to that legislation. Industrial Poisons in the United States (Hamilton, A.) Workplace safety;health hazards Medicine;industrial hazards Occupational diseases Diseases;occupational

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Addams, Jane. My Friend Julia Lathrop. New York: Macmillan, 1935. Primarily a discussion of Lathrop’s public service. Revised by Hamilton after Addams’s death, describes the work and background of several Hull House reformers and shows the obstacles they faced in seeking environmental reform.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Twenty Years at Hull-House. New York: Macmillan, 1910. Reprint. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990. The classic work about the most famous U.S. settlement house. Contains little about any specific reformer, but chapters 10-16 and chapter 18 provide essential background for an understanding of working-class conditions at the beginning of the twentieth century and of Hull House and its pioneering social and reform work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gottlieb, Robert. “Urban and Industrial Roots.” In Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the American Environmental Movement. Rev. ed. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2005. General history presents an exceptionally complete discussion of women’s contributions. Includes a summary of Hamilton’s research and an excellent, if brief, discussion of the political forces that enabled the work of the Hull House reformers to gain national importance.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grant, Madeleine P. Alice Hamilton: Pioneer Doctor in Industrial Medicine. London: Abelard-Schuman, 1967. A good, simply written summary of Hamilton’s work, completed before Hamilton’s death, although it is heavily dependent on Hamilton’s autobiography (cited below) and adds little to it.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hamilton, Alice. Exploring the Dangerous Trades: The Autobiography of Alice Hamilton, M.D. Boston: Little, Brown, 1943. Reprint. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1985. Presents a readable, sometimes anecdotal, account of the obstacles and adventures Hamilton encountered in pursuing her research. Includes little serious discussion of her research or publications and practically nothing about her personal life or the difficulties she encountered as a pioneering woman scientist.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rosner, David, and Gerald Markowitz, eds. Dying for Work: Workers’ Safety and Health in Twentieth-Century America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987. Of particular interest are the editors’ introduction and their essay “Safety and Health as a Class Issue: The Workers’ Health Bureau of America During the 1920s.” Also helpful for an understanding of Hamilton’s work is Ruth Heifetz’s “Women, Lead, and Reproductive Hazards: Defining a New Risk.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sellers, Christopher C. Hazards of the Job: From Industrial Disease to Environmental Health Science. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997. Study of the development of industrial medicine includes discussion of Alice Hamilton’s contributions. Features notes and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sicherman, Barbara. Alice Hamilton: A Life in Letters. 1984. Reprint. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2003. Excellent study of Hamilton and her work combines scholarly understanding with fluent writing. Makes excellent use of family letters and records not accessible to earlier writers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wertheimer, Barbara Mayer. We Were There: The Story of Working Women in America. New York: Pantheon, 1977. Includes little discussion of the Hull House reformers but much about the groups through which they worked, such as the National Consumers League. One of the best studies available concerning the conditions that gave rise to the Hull House reformers and their work.

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Categories: History