ALICE HAMILTON: A Life in Letters by Barbara Sicherman
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ALICE HAMILTON: A Life in Letters

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Reading these fresh, personable letters, set into Sicherman's concise and helpful narrative, one is tempted to proclaim, ""a century of progress."" Alice Hamilton, physician and virtual founder of the science of occupational medicine, lived out a full 101 years--devoting herself to improving the lot of workers, writing the definitive texts, and teaching the first courses. (She was Harvard's first woman faculty member.) She was a spirited participant in other liberal and social causes, and a lifelong associate of Jane Addams and Hull House (where she lived for 22 years). Hamilton was born in 1869 into a clannish upper-class Fort Wayne family. Her older sister was classicist Edith Hamilton; other bluestocking relations painted, wrote, or did social work and, with rare exceptions, didn't marry' when these ""Little Women"" weren't sharing homes, vacations, or travels, they wrote often and at length. Alice was particularly close to cousin Agnes, whose religious and social attitudes were similar; and through the hundreds of letters Alice wrote to her, we see the personality revealed in intimate detail. Though outspoken and decisive, Alice expressed considerable self-doubt and fear in her early years in medical school. She chose medicine because she felt it would enable her to go anywhere in society. But she discovered that her real interest lay in the laboratory, not in practice; and when she read a muckraking article and a compendium called Dangerous Trades, her attention turned to industrial medicine and her path was fixed. And path it was: Hamilton personally investigated the paint factories and potteries, the smelting works and copper mines. She went into workers' homes, sought out their medical records to establish irrefutable evidence of cause and effect. She did definitive work on the toxicity of white phosphorus, lead, mercury, explosive materials, and numerous other industrial poisons, helping draft laws and write directives for worker safety. World War I found her in Europe with Jane Addams, protesting; later, she was involved in relief programs. The letters are expressive of the business at hand: Hamilton feels like a ""squeezed out orange and a very silly one too,"" after a particularly heavy lecture tour; she defends her work for German relief no matter how much it offends someone on Harvard's Board of Overseers. It's easy to see why she became everybody's heroine: she was against prohibition, pro Sacco and Vanzetti, pro birth control, and an early ACLUer. She remained politically and socially active until her upper 90s, when a series of strokes began to take their toll. A remarkable life wonderfully evoked in her own telling and Sicherman's sage commentary.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1984
ISBN: 0252071522
Publisher: Harvard Univ. Press