Exploring the Dangerous Trades:
The Autobiography of Alice Hamilton MD
Excerpts of a review by Mary Wehrle
At the turn of the twentieth century, the risk of taking an industrial job was that you could be slowly poisoned to death at work. There were no laws to protect workers in factories, no OSHA, no workers' compensation. Dr. Alice Hamilton wanted to take on the problem of industrial poisoning, a new field and one that few worried about. Many victims were recent immigrants afraid to complain. Most did not know the risks. "The poor must take dangerous jobs, or have no jobs at all," she wrote.
Alice Hamilton was born in 1869 and was part of a generation of progressive women who took active roles in changing society for the better. She had a medical education from the University of Michigan, and spent over twenty years at Hull House, working with Jane Addams and Florence Kelley. At Hull House she got involved in the labor movement. She joined union strikers on picket lines. As a physician, she joined the birth-control movement through the Chicago Birth Control Committee.
Hamilton visited workplaces to understand the connection between the work and the toxins that killed people. In 1910 she was appointed by the governor to a commission to investigate occupational diseases in Illinois. She visited 300 workplaces, interviewed workers, and went to their homes to speak to them or to surviving relatives. She researched death records. She found Cook County Hospital filled with victims of industrial poisoning. With Florence Kelley in the 1920's she worked with the Consumers' League to help the "Radium Girls" who were dying from their work with radium-laden paint. The American Federation of Labor helped pressure for safety and compensation laws.
In 1911 Illinois passed a first attempt at compensation for industrial diseases caused by poisonous gases, fumes, and dust. The law was overturned by the Supreme Court and not replaced until 1936.
Dr. Hamilton became a committed New Dealer, serving as consultant to the United States Division of Labor Standards. Her work contributed to reforms in industrial hygiene laws like the Fair Labor Standards Act. Shortly after her death at age 101 the Occupational Safety and Health Act passed in 1970, a culmination of protective labor legislation, one of organized labor's greatest accomplishments.