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A League of Her Own: Professor Alice Hamilton

By 1916, Hamilton was the world’s premier authority on lead poisoning research. Led by academic as well as humanitarian motivations, she worked in Chicago and Paris before receiving a letter in the mail she most likely thought would never come: an offer to work at Harvard University.
By Emma C. Scornavacchi

Dr. Alice Hamilton was pleased to see that the room was not luxurious.

Tired of the extravagance of hotels across Europe, she was relieved to find the last room waiting for her in Geneva distinctly un-flashy. As Hamilton wrote in a 1924 letter to her sister, the room had “everything one needs but no luxuries.”

Having left her family home in Hadlyme, Connecticut two weeks before, Hamilton arrived in Belgium and immediately boarded a sleeper train for France. From Strausburg, she journeyed through Lausanne before crossing over into Switzerland, the final destination of the arduous trip. This dizzying schedule was consistent with the pace of her career.

Hamilton was appointed to the faculty of Harvard Medical School in 1918. Six years later, Hamilton arrived at her bare-bones room in Geneva, ready to serve on the League of Nations Health Committee. “I meant to tell the League when they offer me my per diem, that I can pay that myself,” she wrote to her sister Margaret .

At both Harvard and the League of Nations, Hamilton stood alone. She was the leading authority in her fields, a pioneer in the field of workplace safety and in research on lead, carbon monoxide, and mercury poisoning. Hamilton was the first woman to become a professor at Harvard Medical School. She was also the only woman to serve on the League of Nations Health Committee from 1924 to 1930.

Hamilton’s story begins, though, long before the League or Harvard left invitations in her mailbox. Hamilton grew up the second of five children (four sisters, one brother), first in Fort Wayne, Indiana and then at “finishing school” in Connecticut. Both in her childhood home and away at boarding school, Hamilton lived amid intimate sibling camaraderie and an intense dedication to academics.

“We were expected,” Margaret Hamilton wrote, “to know literature—French, German, and English.” The Hamilton sisters emerged from this childhood well-learned and primed for success. Academics, however, were rarely forced upon them. “One did not study these subjects; they were to be read and enjoyed,” she wrote. “Modern languages were learned by conversation and reading. Latin and mathematics were our only lessons.”

By the time Alice Hamilton began classes at the University of Michigan Medical School (a path one could take directly from high school at the time), her interest in science had expanded beyond simple enjoyment. From Michigan, Hamilton snaked a path across the globe with her clinical and research-based pursuits—from Minneapolis to Boston, Munich to Baltimore, ultimately finding her way to Chicago.

When Hamilton took a job at the Women’s Medical School at Northwestern in 1897, much of her decision to move to Chicago centered on a house: Hull House, a settlement house in inner-city education, to be specific. It was at Hull House, while teaching English and art, that Hamilton first observed the effects harmful substances could have on workers’ health. Her research career rocketed from there.

By 1916, Hamilton was the world’s premier authority on lead poisoning research. Led by academic as well as humanitarian motivations, she worked in Chicago and Paris before receiving a letter in the mail she most likely thought would never come: an offer to work at Harvard University.

Harvard Medical School Dean David L. Edsall reached out to Hamilton in 1918, offering her an Assistant Professorship in Industrial Medicine. The leadership and faculty of the school was all-male at the time, and many tasked with determining the fate of Hamilton’s career would have preferred to keep their workspace free of women. Edsall, though, remained confident.

“The interest in it has been such, and has increased so rapidly that we feel a good deal of confidence that by keeping at it we shall soon find ourselves on a permanently firm basis.” Edsall wrote in a 1918 letter.

Hamilton’s appointment was approved in 1918, making her the first female faculty member employed by Harvard University.

Three major restrictions kept Hamilton from full-fledged faculty status, though. She was not allowed in the Faculty Club, the commanding brick old-boys-club that did not grant women access until 1968. She could not participate in the commencement procession. And, devastatingly, she was denied faculty tickets to Harvard football games.

But the sexism Hamilton experienced at Harvard didn’t compare to what she’d feel serving the League of Nations in 1924. “I thought it was discipline enough in humility to be on the Harvard faculty, but this is much worse,” Hamilton wrote in a letter to her sister Margaret. “I am an utter ignoramus and can only sit and listen and blush if I am asked a question.”

The League got under Hamilton’s skin, but it didn’t stop her career. From Geneva, Hamilton went on to become a consultant, researcher and author—working intently to advance the field of industrial toxicology in Washington D.C. and Germany. After she retired, she continued to conduct research and work as a consultant for various government and private enterprises, even penning an autobiography in 1943.

Hamilton shattered more than one glass ceiling over the course of her long career, a feat that often took its toll.

“You may imagine me from now on, going along dripping streets in my loden coat, to endless committees where I sit silent but much interested, then again through pouring cold rains to the Maison Internationals for dinner and an early bed, or to dress and go out and meet more League people till my head buzzes with all the talk,” Hamilton wrote in the final paragraph of her Geneva letter to Margaret. “Two weeks of it will be quite enough.”

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Retrospection