Harvard’s first lady

In 1995, the United States Postal Service dedicated a postage stamp in recognition of Alice Hamilton’s achievements. Here she is honored by then-Harvard School of Public Health Dean Harvey V. Fineberg and others.

A “very sound and unusual person.” That was how Harvard Medical School Dean David L. Edsall described renowned industrial toxicologist Alice Hamilton in December 1918, as Harvard President Abbott Lawrence Lowell pondered the appointment of the University’s first female faculty member.

While decidedly unenthusiastic, Lowell ultimately gave his approval “if she is really the best person for it in the country,” and in the spring of 1919, at the age of 50, Hamilton became an assistant professor of industrial medicine at Harvard Medical School. (In the 1920s, industrial medicine became a part of the newly separated Harvard School of Public Health.) Hamilton’s appointment was subject to three restrictions: She was not to be allowed into the Faculty Club, not to participate in academic processions at commencement, and not eligible for faculty tickets to football games.

Regardless of conditions, Hamilton’s appointment was big news. “A woman on the Harvard faculty! The Harvard Board of Overseers isn’t given to providing sensations but the esteemed gentlemen did that little thing about a week ago . . . . [T]he bars are down! Spring millinery will be a feature of Harvard faculty meetings henceforth,” the Boston Sunday Globe marveled on March 23, 1919. “Her appointment at Harvard suggests her great talent; otherwise the overseers would have had no trouble in overlooking her. The magic of being a man still counts for a great deal in the medical profession,” the New York Tribune wrote on April 6, 1919.  (Hamilton herself put it this way: “It is due to my luck in being in a new field; there are few in the work of industrial hygiene. But I am not the first woman who ought to have been called to Harvard,” she told the Globe.)

Her talent was indeed extraordinary—as was her life. Throughout her career, Hamilton’s public health work was inextricably linked to her passion for social justice, which extended to causes including pacifism and women’s rights as well as workplace safety. She began her working life teaching pathology at the Women’s Medical School of Northwestern University of Chicago—in part because it would allow her to live in Jane Addams’ legendary Hull House, where she lived side by side with immigrants and the poor.

It was while living at Hull House and providing medical care that Hamilton began her groundbreaking research into dangerous workplace conditions, ultimately developing a unique expertise in occupational diseases—most notably lead poisoning—and serving on numerous national and international committees and commissions. She was a passionate and tireless advocate. “There’s too much chivalry outdoors and too little indoors,” she once observed, referring to the toxic work environments where many women labored.

Born in 1869 in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Hamilton decided to become a doctor while in her teens. “I chose medicine not because I was scientifically minded, for I was deeply ignorant of science,” she wrote in her autobiography. “I chose it because as a doctor I could go anywhere I pleased—to far off lands or to city slums—and be quite sure I could be of use anywhere.” After graduating from Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Connecticut, she went on to attend Bryn Mawr College followed by medical studies at the University of Michigan and in Germany, where she was permitted to attend lectures in bacteriology and pathology on the condition that she make herself “totally inconspicuous” to male students and professors.” (Her sister Edith, who joined her in Germany, would go on to an extraordinary career of her own as the widely renowned classicist who authored The Greek Way, which she published at age 62.)

Alice Hamilton died in 1970 at the age of 101. Years earlier, at the age of 88, she had this to say:  “For me the satisfaction is that things are better now, and I had some part in it.”

Is there an event, person, or discovery in Harvard School of Public Health history that you’d like to read about? Send your suggestions to Centennial@hsph.harvard.edu.

Back to centennial moments homepage.