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This Day in Labor History: February 27, 1869. The great workplace safety reformer Alice Hamilton is born. Let's talk about her amazing work and what workers faced in the early 20th century.
Anyone who has studied workplaces of the late 19th and early 20th centuries is routinely horrified about how unsafe, disgusting, and toxic they were. And no one cared. If workers didn't like it, they could quit. That was essentially the legal framework of the era.
Alice Hamilton was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana and was encouraged by her parents to achieve the education she desired. She wanted to become a doctor, which was very rare for women in these years.
But in 1893, she received her medical degree from the University of Michigan and at first dedicated herself to working with women and children, seen as more fit for the few women professionals at this time that settlement houses, for instance, were being established.
But Hamilton wanted more. She left the U.S. for advanced medical training in Germany. She studied in Munich and Leipzig, returning to the U.S. in 1897 to study more, at Johns Hopkins.
She then moved to Chicago, where she became a professor of pathology at the Woman’s Medical School at Northwestern University.
Hamilton was deeply committed to helping the poor. So she moved into Jane Addams’ Hull House. Living with the poor, she became interested in the problems of workplace health and safety.
That’s for good reason. Workers lived atrociously unsafe lives on the job. Many jobs were exercising in seeing how long you could live before you died or lost mental or physical capacity due to the poisons you ingested or absorbed.
This is entirely besides the dangers of being burned or decapitated or electrocuted on the job. A poor worker in an American factory was one who may well not live long.
Hamilton became an expert on industrial medicine, which wasn’t that hard because it was barely studied in an America that was utterly indifferent to the question. Employers had no legal responsibility to protect their workers at all. This was still the contract doctrine era.
Going back to the 1840s, courts had ruled that if an employee agreed to take a job, it was on that employee to keep themselves safe. After all, they could always quit. The Progressive Era was leading to reform, but the courts were not receptive, as the Lochner case demonstrated.
So job by job, Hamilton began exploring the horrors and seeing how to fix them. In 1910, she was named to the Occupational Disease Commission of Illinois and worked for the state on the issue for the next decade.
The major issue Hamilton worked on was lead poisoning. Lead was a very common ingredient in industrial processes, nowhere more so than paint. Adults are relatively immune to small amounts of lead, but at the rates people were ingesting it, they became very sick.
Lead damages the nervous system and workers developed the drooping wrists that became a tell-tale sign of lead poisoning. Hamilton took a systematic approach to getting a handle on this issue, visiting worksites, consulting physicians, and interviewing unionists.
A huge breakthrough occurred when she visiting an bathtub factory. There, a Polish worker clearly suffered from lead poisoning was painting enamel on the tubs. The managers assured her there was no lead used in the factory and let her inspect the workplace.
But by asking questions, she found out that most of the enameling was done elsewhere and this was just the touch-up factory. The solution used at the second factory was 20 percent lead and the follow-up workers was being exposed.
This allowed her to piece the puzzle together over lead in enamel-based production processes.
This sort of thing happened over and over. Employers were incredulous. They simply couldn’t understand even thinking about questions of workplace safety. It was certainly not something they had considered before.
She had no legal authority. All she could do was try to convince them to improve their workplaces. The fact that Hamilton was very much the proper Victorian woman did not hurt her ability to operate, wrapping herself up in a cocoon of propriety and fairness. It often worked.
When she went to Edward Cornish, president of the National Lead Company, to present the facts to him, he was absolutely shocked and denied that he could possibly be poisoning his workers.
But he also agreed to her suggestions, including weekly visits by doctors to the factory and constructing new systems to gather up the dust and fumes that were poisoning the workers.
It was much the same with white phosphorus, which led to the notoriously awful condition of phossy jaw. White phosphorus was used in matches. It was incredibly toxic at the doses match workers experienced. It destroyed jawbones. Here is a matchworker with phossy jaw:
Bones glowed in the dark. Brain damage was frequent. The rotting bones smelled. Sometimes, removing them could lead to the life being saved. More often, it led to organ failure and death.
In 1908, John Andrews and the American Association for Labor Legislation became compiling information about this. Hamilton helped them publicize and work on it. Hamilton wasn’t the only person starting to work to save lives; Andrews and others deserve credit too.
But as a whole, no one did more than Hamilton. William Howard Taft signed legislation in 1912 that taxed matchmakers using white phosphorus as a way to move them to less toxic methods.
No one can articulate these horrible things and how Hamilton fought them better than Hamilton herself, in her autobiography. Here's a short excerpt. Check it out.

In 1919, Hamilton became the first woman hired to the medical faculty at Harvard. She retained her connections to Hull House until Addams’ death in 1935. She retired from Harvard that same year. She wasn’t done though.
She started a big study of the conditions that went into making viscose rayon, which used processes that caused mental illness. Her last big project, the report she wrote went far to reform conditions in this industry.
Hamilton lived all the way until 1970, when she was 101 years old. In her later years, she spoke out against McCarthyism and issued a petition to John F. Kennedy protesting American involvement in Vietnam.
Hamilton is one of the real non-working class heroes of the labor movement, someone who did as much as Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Florence Kelley or Robert Wagner or Frances Perkins to make the lives of workers better.
Hamilton is little known today, perhaps because of the specificity of the issues she labored on, but she deserves much more fame.
Perhaps the best book that explores Hamilton’s legacy, other than her own autobiography, is Christopher Sellers, Hazards of the Job: From Industrial Disease to Environmental Health Science.

Back on Friday to discuss the lives of workers who built Hoover Dam.
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