Celebrating Alice Hamilton, occupational safety pioneer

Today is World Day for Safety and Health at Work, an initiative championed by the International Labor Organization, a specialized agency of the UN, to promote safe and secure working conditions for all. While occupational safety is now enshrined in labor codes and companies are largely responsible for the safety of their employees in the workplace, this has not always been the case. In the early 20th century, scientist Alice Hamilton pioneered the field of industrial health, and many of the protections we now enjoy are thanks to her hard work and courage. DiscovHER takes a closer look at her story.

Working in safe and secure environment is something that we have come to expect from our employers. In most countries, companies are obliged by the law to do what’s reasonable to safeguard workers’ health and safety, and must pay compensation to employees who suffer harm caused by their negligence. The robust protections we enjoy today stem directly from the pioneering work of Alice Hamilton, an American biochemist and toxicologist who was the first to ring alarms about a number of workplace hazards, including lead, radium and mercury poisoning, carbon monoxide exposure and other safety hazards.

Hamilton was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, to one of the founding families of the town. She studied at the University of Michigan Medical School before working in women and children’s hospitals in Minneapolis and Boston. She completed her postgraduate studies at John Hopkins, before working at the Chicago’s Memorial Institute for Infectious Diseases. During this time, she lived in Jane Addams’ famous Hull House, which welcomed immigrants and other poor people, and she noticed that this community had a higher incidence of diseases such as typhoid fever and tuberculosis. Touched by what she observed, Hamilton conducted a landmark study that linked the spread of disease to dirty, cramped toilets and kitchens, provoking the government to issue laws on sanitation and overcrowding.

In 1919, Hamilton became the first female faculty member at the Harvard Medical School – and the first woman in any field in the entire university. An impressive feat, indeed, considering that women were not allowed to enter that school until 1945. However, Hamilton was not given full privileges and faced a number of criticisms. Ever the social justice activist, Hamilton coolly replied to such critiques: “Yes, I am the first woman on the Harvard faculty — but not the first one who should have been appointed.”

Throughout her career, Hamilton made a huge number of discoveries on the toxic substances that made workers ill, including lead, mercury, benzene, radium and other chemicals that were widely used in industry. She was utterly committed to her work; when refused access to factories and mines, she secretly broke in or sympathized with workers to better understand what ailed them. And when she made a discovery, she talked about it loudly and publicly to make sure the government listened to her concerns. Thanks to Hamilton’s pioneering work and lifelong activism, employees around the world can enjoy safety standards and protection at work.

For Women in Science

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