Alice Hamilton to Receive National Historic Chemical Landmark Award

Margaret Strobel, September 2002

On September 21, 2002, Dr. Alice Hamilton will posthumously receive a National Historic Chemical Landmark Award from the American Chemical Society. The event is part of a conference entitled "Alice Hamilton and the Foundation of Occupational Safety and Health," organized by the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC).

Founded in 1889, the Hull-House social settlement offered programs under the leadership of Jane Addams to address the needs of impoverished immigrants in Chicago's New West Side.

Alice Hamilton (1869–1970) came to Hull-House in 1897 and worked with the Hull-House community throughout her entire career. Through living and working in the Hull-House neighborhood, she became familiar with the problems of industrial and occupational diseases. As special investigator for the U.S. Department of Labor, she documented industrial working conditions. Hamilton's surveys showed the high mortality rate for workers in "dangerous trades," including lead and the associated enamelware industries; the rubber industry; painting trades; dye works; and copper, mercury, explosives, and munitions production. Hamilton's studies of the effect of lead on industrial workers established her position as a leader in the field of chemical health and safety and industrial toxicology. She died at age 101, three months before the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

Hamilton lived a long and productive life. The first female professor hired at Harvard, from 1919 to 1935 she taught as an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and then at its School of Public Health. Harvard's terms included that she not receive football tickets, not frequent the Faculty Club, and not take part in the commencement procession. In turn, she asked to teach only one semester per year, in order to continue her field studies and to return to Hull-House regularly.

In some circles, Hamilton is better known for her advocacy for peace and social reforms than for her work in industrial toxicology. She joined Jane Addams and women from other belligerent and neutral nations at The Hague in 1915 to avert World War I and later was involved with the League of Nations. In her 90s, she opposed the war in Vietnam. She condemned McCarthyism and championed the cause of civil liberties. In 1952, her shift in supporting the Equal Rights Amendment instead of protective legislation caused a stir in feminist circles.

The National Historic Chemical Landmark Award Program is a program of the American Chemical Society (ACS), the world's largest scientific society. The ACS has declared more than 40 places, discoveries, and achievements—everything from the production of aluminum to the plastic used in the hula hoop—to be historic chemical landmarks. (See http://center.acs.org/landmarks/ for more information about the award program.)

According to the ACS, local "ACS members identify milestones in their cities or regions, document their importance, and nominate them for landmark designation. An international committee of chemists, chemical engineers, museum curators, and science and technology historians evaluates each nomination and approves those meriting landmark status."

Held at UIC on September 20–21, the conference will bring together historians, chemistry teachers, and public health and occupational safety and health professionals. Historians Barbara Sicherman, Christopher Sellers, and Allison Hepler will examine Hamilton's life and work. Chemistry teachers from middle school through college classrooms will discuss how to integrate historical and biographical information into chemistry courses, using, for example, Hamilton's studies of lead poisoning. Finally, occupational safety and health representatives from the U.S. Department of Labor, the AFL-CIO, and the UIC's School of Public Health will explore present day "visions of occupational safety and health." (The full conference program may be viewed at http://www.uic.edu/jaddams/hull/alicehamilton.html.

The Jane Addams Hull-House Museum consists of two of the original 13 buildings that made up the Hull-House settlement complex. When the campus of UIC was built on the Hull-House site in the 1960s and the social service agency work of the Hull-House Association dispersed to several sites around Chicago, UIC assumed responsibility for the museum. The museum's web site is at http://www.uic.edu/jaddams/hull/index.html.

—Margaret Strobel is interim director, Jane Addams Hull-House Museum.