Advocating for Public Health

Alice Hamilton was born into a family of privilege but devoted her life to public health service. She received a medical degree from the University of Michigan. After graduation, she developed an interest in public health while living at the Hull House, a settlement house in Chicago.

Living side-by-side with poor residents, she saw the impact that dangerous workplaces had on the residents. She also saw how typhoid fever and tuberculosis were spread through unsanitary living environments.

She became the nation’s leading authority on lead poisoning. In 1925 she issued warnings against the use of lead in gasoline. Sixty years later the EPA estimated that 68 million children had suffered needlessly from lead exposures.

Dr. Hamilton practiced what she called “shoe leather epidemiology”. This practice involved actual visits to factories and interviewing workers. Her work has subsequently led to fields of study in occupational epidemiology and industrial hygiene.

Dr. Hamilton’s work led to such occupational disease studies as carbon monoxide poisoning in steel workers, mercury poisoning of hatters, and hand deterioration by construction workers using jackhammers. Other work included early investigations leading to issues now associated with carpal tunnel syndrome, pneumoconiosis, and other illnesses.

Her work led to her becoming the first woman appointed to the faculty of Harvard University (in any field of study) While her appointment was widely heralded, she never advanced her rank nor received tenure. She was excluded from participation in faculty social events. She was not even allowed to participate in commencement ceremonies.

Hidden heroes are often initially thought of as radicals and tarnished with whatever is the latest fear label. Dr. Hamilton was labeled as a radical for advocating for civil rights, peace, and birth control, as well as for her work in public health. They don’t let these disparagements deter them from their work. Societal progress often comes from the determination of single individuals. It’s interesting to compare their success in comparison to commissions or other “authorized” efforts to deal with change.

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            “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter”.– Martin Luther King

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