Today Labor Day is primarily thought of as the long weekend that marks the end of summer. But as one might guess, Labor Day was started as an outgrowth of the labor movement. As labor unions gained in power, they wanted to establish an annual tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country. The first Labor Day holiday was celebrated in 1882 in New York City, and by 1884, additional cities throughout the United States were following New York City’s lead. The first Monday in September soon became the “workingmen’s holiday.”
Honoring workers with a day dedicated to them is admirable, but keeping them safe is even more so, and industrial toxicology was a field that was just being explored when Labor Day was established. At this time — the late 19th century — women had very few options in the workplace, so it is all the more remarkable that a woman was behind the creation of a field trying to correct toxic work environments. Alice Hamilton (1869-1970) was the energy behind investigating workplace health hazards, and on a day that recognizes the value of American workers, Hamilton should be among those who are honored for drawing attention to the daily dangers to which workers are exposed.
Hamilton was one of five children born in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Because she was born to prominent parents she had the opportunity for a good education, and at that time, students could go from high school directly to medical school. After completing boarding school, Hamilton entered medical school and became fascinated by pathology. She decided to become a research scientist rather than to go into clinical practice, and in 1893, she graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School. Hamilton’s sister was going to Europe to study the classics, and Hamilton decided to accompany her to continue her studies in bacteriology. The universities in Munich and Leipzich had never before admitted female students, so she was permitted to attend lectures in bacteriology and pathology “if she made herself inconspicuous.” She then returned to the United States where she became a researcher at Johns Hopkins Medical School.
In 1897 she became professor of pathology at the short-lived Women’s Medical School at Northwestern University. She was still in the Chicago area in 1902 when the city experienced a typhoid epidemic. Hamilton lived and worked among the poor, and she made a connection between poor sewage disposal and the role of flies in transmitting disease. Her information led to reorganization of the Chicago health department, and soon the governor of Illinois appointed her to the Illinois Commission on Occupational Diseases, and the group ran a groundbreaking study surveying industrial diseases in Illinois.
At the time there were no laws regulating safety in the workplace. Her efforts became well known, and she was soon called upon to address issues for the national government. From 1911 to 1920 she served as a special investigator for the federal Bureau of Labor (later called the Department of Labor) where she undertook a study of the use of lead and lead oxide in manufacturing paint. (No one understood the dangers of lead poisoning at this time.) She also noted the health problems of workers who were exposed to noxious chemicals.
By 1919 Alice Hamilton was the acknowledged expert in the field of industrial medicine, and though Harvard University’s entire faculty was male, the medical school determined that they would create a department of industrial medicine with Hamilton as its leader. She was to be given the title of assistant professor, and Harvard placed three qualifications on her appointment: Dr. Hamilton was not to use the Faculty Club; she would not be permitted to march in commencement processions with the rest of the faculty; and she would never be given football tickets, a “perk” available to the rest of the faculty. She took the position and was never given a higher standing than assistant professor.
Though she maintained a full schedule of teaching responsibilities, Hamilton continued to devote six months a years to conducting her surveys of employment conditions within various industries. Over time she revealed to government and business the dangers of certain dyes, carbon monoxide, mercury, lead, radium (commonly used in wristwatch dials), benzene, the chemicals in storage batteries, and carbon disulfide and hydrogen sulfide bases which ware created during the process of making rayon.
Hamilton died in 1970 at the age of 101. She dedicated her life to making life better for other people and was active with both health-related and political causes. Labor Day is the perfect time to recognize her.