Alice Hamilton and the Development of Occupational Medicine

Social activist

Alice Hamilton’s move into Hull-House in 1897 marked an intellectual and political milestone in her life for three reasons. First, Hull-House brought her into the orbit of social activists and reformers like Jane Addams and the hundreds of other residents and visitors who passed through the settlement in the years Hamilton lived there. Second, living and working among the poor and the immigrants in Chicago helped turn Hamilton into a social activist, as did her later professional investigations into occupational diseases. And, third, while Hull-House may not have been geographically far from her upbringing in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the two were socially and politically worlds apart. Her parents’ politics centered on a commitment to free trade and individual liberty and a distrust of the lower classes, immigrants, and urban America. The social solutions and collective action at the core of settlement life were anathema to the Fort Wayne Hamiltons.

In her early years at Hull-House, Hamilton focused on her well-baby clinic and on her professional work: first in teaching and later the Illinois and federal investigations in industrial toxicology. But that changed with the opening shots of the First World War when Hamilton joined with other activist women to protest the war. In 1915 Hamilton along with about fifty other Americans, led by Jane Addams, attended the International Congress of Women at The Hague in the Netherlands. More than 1100 women from warring and neutral nations attended the conference. The participants had little political clout, since few women possessed the right to vote and those from belligerent nations risked prosecution as traitors. The meeting backed a call for a conference of neutral nations that would offer to mediate between the opposing sides, and it endorsed creation of an international court, a world organization of nations, freedom of the seas, and national self-determination.

In 1919 Hamilton was back in Europe to attend a second women’s congress, this one in Zurich, Switzerland. This congress condemned the Versailles Treaty, predicting it would create conflict among European ethnic groups that would lead to future wars. It criticized the harsh victor’s peace and the economic burden being imposed on the defeated countries as well as violations of self-determination in the carving up of the map of Europe. The delegates also called for immediate distribution of food to the millions of starving Europeans.

Hamilton toured occupied Belgium in 1915 and some of the famine ravaged regions of Europe in 1919. She wrote movingly of Belgium "under the heel of the conqueror." In her autobiography she noted that "since then I have been in Soviet Russia and Hitler’s Germany and have learned to accept without surprise the atmosphere of suspicion and of underlying fear… but then it was all so new as to be unbelievable." In 1919 a tour of defeated Germany left her with "a succession of pictures of starvation, as seen in crèches and kindergartens and schools, in hospitals and sanatoria for the tuberculous, and in outdoor day camps for boys and girls." In a letter to her cousin Jessie Hamilton (quoted in Barbara Sicherman’s Alice Hamilton: A Life in Letters), she wrote, "the stories of the starvation of children are bad enough, but, perhaps because I have never had children but did have Mother, that I feel even more the starvation of the old."

Hamilton wrote in her autobiography that in the two decades after the First World War "I never wavered in my attitude toward war." But two visits to Germany in the 1930s, where Hamilton witnessed Nazi tyranny and anti-Semitism, led to a change in view. Writing in 1943, "in the third year of this most terrible of all wars, I am among those who believe we are right in taking up arms on the side of the United Nations. As has so often happened to me, the change in my views has come slowly and almost unconsciously." Hamilton found it possible to support U.S. entry into the Second World War because little of the nationalism and jingoism that marked the earlier war appeared in the 1940s. Indeed, to her it was the anti-war movement that now seemed "narrow and nationalistic" and that if America stayed out of the war "it would not be for generous motives but for selfish ones, and that would be very bad for our national souls."

During her long life, Hamilton spoke out on many controversial issues, often on the losing or unpopular side. In the 1920s, when she lived in Boston while teaching at Harvard University, Hamilton became involved in the Sacco-Vanzetti case, a symbol for many of the intolerance in post-war America toward immigrants and of defects in the justice system. Hamilton never met Nicola Sacco or Bartoleomeo Vanzetti, political anarchists convicted and sentenced to die for two murders in Massachusetts. The case dragged on for many years, and on August 22, 1927, Hamilton, along with five prominent men, met with the governor of Massachusetts in a failed last-ditch effort to win a stay of execution.

After the Second World War, while in her long retirement in Hadlyme, Connecticut, Hamilton kept up a drumbeat for social justice. Never shy about reconsidering her views, Hamilton in the 1950s reversed her objection to the Equal Rights Amendment when she was persuaded it would not undermine protective legislation for women in the workplace, for which she had long fought. In these years Hamilton worked for the protection of civil liberties as she became increasingly concerned that the Cold War conflict with the Soviet Union abroad threatened freedom at home. She signed numerous petitions and frequently wrote her congressmen or local newspapers, activities that found their way into a file the FBI kept on her. But she remained undaunted and continued to protest U.S. support for repressive but anticommunist regimes abroad, such as Nationalist China and South Korea, while advocating recognition of the People’s Republic of China.

A civil libertarian throughout her life, Hamilton worried that congressional investigations during the Cold War into alleged communist subversion and calls for loyalty oaths were undermining constitutionally guaranteed liberties. She signed an appeal to President Truman, urging him to commute the death sentences of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, convicted of espionage in aiding the Soviet Union to develop an atomic bomb. She opposed the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952 that empowered the Department of Justice to deport immigrants and naturalized citizens believed to have engaged in subversive activities. And she protested the McCarthy anti-communist "witch hunts" of the 1950s. In the 1960s, when she was in her nineties, Alice Hamilton protested U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.


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Alice Hamilton: a long productive life | Hull-House | Hazards of the workplace | Industrial toxicology | Social activist |
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