By the time Alice Hamilton joined Harvard’s faculty in 1919, she was already one of the nation’s pre-eminent researchers in the field of occupational health. Her tenacious methods were legendary—in her study of workers suffering from diseases like lead poisoning, she sifted tirelessly through hospital records, climbed treacherous catwalks, and slipped covertly into factories around the country.
“It was pioneering, exploration of an unknown field,” she recalled in her 1943 memoir, Exploring the Dangerous Trades. “No young doctor nowadays can hope for work as exciting and rewarding.”
Hamilton’s steely determination in her fieldwork served her well at Harvard. As the University’s first female faculty member, she was forbidden to sit with her male colleagues at commencement, barred from entering the all-male faculty club, and even denied such perks as complimentary tickets to Harvard football games. In the face of these demeaning conditions, however, Hamilton continued her pioneering work at the University.
In the early 1920s, she was involved in one of the world’s first systematic studies of industrial radiation poisoning, examined mercury poisoning in felt hat makers, and became an outspoken opponent of leaded gasoline. Later that decade, Hamilton served as the only female member on the health committee of the League of Nations, the precursor to the United Nations, and published her influential textbook, Industrial Toxicology, in 1934.
On her retirement in 1935, Harvard made her a professor emerita (“a great honor [that] pleasantly ignores my sex,” she later chided), and she remained active in the field for years after as a consultant for the U.S. Department of Labor Standards.
In 1970, Hamilton died at 101, but her legacy would live on. That same year, the U.S. government established the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health—entities that remain devoted to the health of workers.