Returning from Europe to America for a long visit in 1905, Henry James found the predominance of women “the sentence written largest in the American sky.” James meant social and cultural predominance, but a quick look at the names of some women born between 1860 and 1880, who were coming into their own around the turn of the century, suggests that these adventurers were reaching well beyond the Jamesian drawing room: the list includes Gertrude Stein, Jane Addams, Emma Goldman, Margaret Sanger, Jeannette Rankin, Frances Perkins, Mabel Dodge Luhan, Edith Hamilton, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Grandma Moses—as well as countless others who never became famous but, who had, as James put it, “quite a new story to tell.”

Alice Hamilton belongs somewhere between these two groups, neither anonymous nor as well known as, say, her sister Edith (to whom she always deferred, claiming “one in a family is enough”). Born in 1869, Alice Hamilton became a physician, the first female professor at Harvard, and a leading figure in the early years of American industrial toxicology: she practiced “shoe-leather epidemiology”—investigating health hazards in the workplace by marching down mine shafts, clambering onto factory tables, dredging up old dispensary records. She sought out workers at home to expose the dangers of such industrial poisons as lead, mercury, TNT, aniline dye, phosphorus, benzene, and radium. In her eighties, she had retired from investigative work but was still actively campaigning for civil rights and international peace, and tending her Connecticut garden in sneakers and jeans.

She died in 1970, at the age of 101, having lived virtually from the Civil War to the Vietnam War. That pioneering first generation of college women is almost entirely gone now—you could still see a few of them around Boston in the 1960s and 1970s attending lectures at the Radcliffe Institute, concerts at the Gardner Museum, peace rallies on the Cambridge Common. They had, in a way, invented themselves, growing up in an age of radical social change when middle-class women began to pursue higher education and find work outside the home.

The official movement for women’s rights had begun at Seneca Falls in 1848, its ideals from the start intertwined with those of abolitionism; the Civil War had left a legacy of social activism and a scarcity of men—of the small proportion of American women who never married, the percentages are highest for those born in the last four decades of the nineteenth century. The postwar years of Alice Hamilton’s childhood came to be known as an era of strong-minded women. In Boston, the Unitarian minister Theodore Parker somewhat nervously saluted “the glorious phalanx of old maids,” and across the Charles River there were gently mocking references to “the Cambridge ladies, who seldom marry and never die.”

Only about half of that first college generation did marry—many, including Alice Hamilton, thought a woman had to choose between family and work, and those who chose careers often felt a sense of special privilege and social obligation. Dr. Hamilton commented on this “transition” time in 1896, when her cousin Allen Hamilton announced his engagement to a medical student, Marian Walker: “I do think it such nonsense Marian’s studying medicine,” Alice wrote to another cousin. “That is the fault of the transition period in which we live. Girls think now that they must all have professions, just because they are free to, not realizing that the proper state of society is one in which a woman is free to choose between an independent life of celibacy or a life given up to child-bearing and rearing the coming generation. We will go down the path of degeneration if we lose our mothers and our home-life….”

Alice Hamilton’s early home life was governed by strong-minded women. Her paternal grandmother presided over three generations of wealthy, liberal, Presbyterian, intellectual Hamiltons living together on a large estate in Fort Wayne, Indiana. This freethinking dowager advocated temperance and women’s suffrage, and when she died in 1889, one of Alice’s cousins said, “We feel like a great body with the head gone.” Alice’s mother, Gertrude Pond, married Montgomery Hamilton in 1866, and their first daughter, Edith, was born the following year. Alice came next, then Margaret (“the quiet, stable, thoughtful one among us”), Norah, the “artistic” one, and finally a boy, Arthur (called Quint by his sisters because a friend had unwisely suggested their father call him “Primus”).

Disapproving of public schools, the young couple began educating their daughters at home: she taught them French, Gray’s Elegy, and the novels of George Eliot; he taught Latin, history, and theology. Montgomery Hamilton puttered unsuccessfully in the grocery business for about twenty years and gradually withdrew from the life of the family. Alice saw her mother as much the stronger of the pair, with a “passionate love of freedom” and a fierce sense of social justice:


She could blaze out, even in her old age, over tales of police brutality, of the lynching of Negroes, over child labor and cruelty to prisoners. She made us feel that whatever went wrong in our society was a personal concern for her and for us…[and] said once…: “There are two kinds of people, the ones who say, ‘Somebody ought to do something about it, but why should it be I?’ and those who say ‘Somebody must do something about it, then why not I?’ ”

Edith gravitated early toward literature, while Alice expressed a tentative interest in science and got no encouragement. When at age fourteen she asked her father if she could study physics, he replied, “It is all in the encyclopedia.” Edith informed Alice that she considered science “disgusting,” and when Alice, in the Hamilton tradition, went to Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Connecticut, she announced that Miss Porter thought her “a bluggy-minded butcher” for wanting to watch an appendectomy. After Farmington, however, both she and Edith decided to train themselves to earn livings, since the family fortune was dwindling and “our only hope of a wide and full life, of going out into the big world, lay in our own efforts.”

That hope set Alice and Edith apart from their sisters and cousins, as well as from previous generations. Edith wanted to become a teacher, and began in the early 1890s to prepare for Bryn Mawr College. Alice chose medicine—“not because I was scientifically-minded,” she wrote later in her autobiography,* “for I was deeply ignorant of science. I chose it because as a doctor I could go anywhere I pleased—to far-off lands or to city slums—and be quite sure that I could be of use anywhere. I should meet all sorts of conditions of men, I should not be tied down to a school or a college as a teacher is, or have to work under a superior, as a nurse must do.”

At first, she went to the Fort Wayne College of Medicine, and then, in 1892, to the University of Michigan. Scared, unsure of her abilities, and a little guilty at having distinguished herself by taking this foreign path, she told a cousin not to think that since she’d been lucky enough to study medicine she had proved “that there is something in me. I simply have placed myself in a position that will show if there is or isn’t, and day by day I am finding out that there isn’t.” Nonetheless, she did extremely well at medical school and went on to an internship at the Northwestern Hospital for Women and Children in Minneapolis—not out of interest in obstetrics (on the contrary, the details of pregnancy and childbirth made her acutely uncomfortable), but because just about the only internships open to female medical students were in women’s hospitals. She was horrified to learn that her first obstetrical patient might prove to be a complicated case: “Complicated case! why I shudder at the thought of the simplest one in the world. I had far, far rather amputate a leg.” She later attributed her decision to give up practice and do research to the agony of watching a patient die in childbirth. In 1896, when Edith began work as headmistress of the Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore, Alice was studying pathology at Johns Hopkins with some of the leading medical men in the world—Simon Flexner, William H. Welch, and William Osler.

At age twenty-eight, in 1897, she took a job teaching pathology and directing the histological and pathological labs at the Women’s Medical School of North-western University. She decided to live at Jane Addams’s famous Chicago settlement, Hull House; and she stayed for twenty-two years. “Miss Addams” or “J.A.” (no one, it seems, called her “Jane”) was ten years older than Alice Hamilton and had made her way to Chicago along a not-dissimilar path. While attending the Rockford (Illinois) Female Seminary in the late 1870s, where the headmistress was busily turning out missionaries, Miss Addams had rejected her teacher’s Christian zeal and ideology of self-sacrifice, taken to heart the ideas of Ruskin, Tolstoy, and William Morris, and decided definitively “that I should study medicine and ‘live with the poor.’ ” She had attended the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1881–1882, but dropped out because of ill health and what she considered her unsuitability for medical practice. For several years she traveled, studied, observed labor strikes, read positivist philosophy, visited Toynbee Hall, London’s East End settlement house, and struggled with the severe “nervous depressions” that dominated the lives of so many late-nineteenth-century women.

In 1889 Jane Addams moved to Chicago, and in a dingy, working-class neighborhood on the west side of town started Hull House—one of the great social experiments in turn-of-the-century America. She and several colleagues—Ellen Starr, Florence Kelley, Julia Lathrop, Grace and Edith Abbott, Sophonisba Breckenridge—sought humane solutions to the problems of industrial society, bringing educated middle-class people to live in communities with under-privileged, often foreign-born workers; the settlements gave useful work and the experience of harsh slum life to women like themselves, and offered education, a center for community activities, and some recourse to social justice for the poor.


Miss Addams’s experience led her into increasingly radical activities on behalf of child labor laws, limited working hours for women, welfare legislation, union organization, improved factory conditions, compulsory school attendance, and later, women’s rights and international peace. In the 1920s she was denounced as “the most dangerous woman in America.”

A young physician new to progressive social ideas, Alice Hamilton was impressed and intimidated by the authoritative, high-minded “J.A.,” and described a wholehearted crush to a cousin who was coming to visit in 1897:

Miss Addams still rattles me, indeed more so all the time…. I am really quite school-girly in my relations with her; it is a remnant of youth which surprises me. I know when she comes into the room. I have pangs of idiotic jealousy toward the residents whom she is intimate with. She is—well she is quite perfect.

Though she, too, could be high-minded, Dr. Hamilton didn’t take herself altogether seriously; she closed this letter: “Think of me as a lonely stranded heathen among many elect who scare her.”

In Hull House, Alice Hamilton found another close-knit, female-dominated domestic community. “To me,” she wrote later, settlement life “satisfied every longing, for companionship, for the excitement of new experiences, for constant intellectual stimulation, and for the sense of being caught up in a big movement which enlisted my enthusiastic loyalty.” Barbara Sicherman, who is Kenan Professor of American Institutions and Values at Trinity College and has done an excellent job of editing these letters, observes that Hamilton’s retrospective view of Hull House leaves out the considerable difficulties she had finding her own voice and place there early on; politically liberal and personally reserved, Dr. Hamilton could not at first fit her scientific work into the community service ideals of this leftish social experiment, and she felt lacking in the true settlement spirit. Not until she was in her forties did she find her real vocation, and then ascribed her interest in workers’ safety to her Hull House experience.

Her first large independent project, begun in 1910, was a survey of the most treacherous and widely used industrial poison—lead. Victims of lead poisoning suffered colic, convulsions, temporary blindness, paralysis (most commonly, wrist-drop), and premature senility. Hamilton proceeded from workers with these symptoms back to poisonous sources, and the early find that gave her the most pleasure was of lead poisoning in bathtub enameling. Alerted by the colic and double wrist-drop of a Polish worker, she inspected his factory and was shown several men painting the outsides of metal tubs; the men appeared healthy, and she found no lead when she checked the paint they were using. She then visited the ailing man at home, and learned that she’d seen only the final touch-up process; checking his workplace, far out on Chicago’s northwest side, she found enamelers sprinkling a fine powder over red-hot tubs where it melted and coated the inside surfaces. The air was thick with enamel dust, which proved upon testing to contain 20 percent soluble lead—poison that passed into solution in workers’ stomachs. Dr. Hamilton described this work in her autobiography:

It was pioneering, exploration of an unknown field. No young doctor nowadays can hope for work as exciting and rewarding. Everything I discovered was new and most of it was really valuable…. Life at Hull House had accustomed me to going straight to the homes of people about whom I wished to learn something and talking to them in their own surroundings, where they have courage to speak out what is in their minds. They were almost always foreigners, Bulgarians, Serbs, Poles, Italians, Hungarians, who had come to this country in the search for a better life for themselves and their children…. Of course they took the first job they could find and if it proved to be one that weakened and crippled them—well, that was their bad luck!

The cheerful confidence that she could make a palpable difference in alleviating the sufferings of large numbers of people, that “somebody must do something about it, then why not I?,” that factory owners and industrial managers would correct dangerous conditions once they’d been shown the truth—held up throughout Dr. Hamilton’s long life. Her meticulous research and faith in the power of facts usually appealed to people’s best instincts, and if they didn’t, she resorted to genteel force: when she was investigating the New Jersey watch-dial industry, where workers used luminous (and highly toxic) radium paint, she met with the manufacturers and wrote to a friend: “It is, after all, the weapon of publicity which we hold up our sleeves that impresses them and makes them ready to do what we tell them to.”

Reformers can be oppressively virtuous, but there was no saccharine in Dr. Hamilton’s dedication to her “really valuable work.” She went on to investigate health hazards in the copper mining, munitions, storage battery production, and electrical power industries. She attended the European meetings of the International Congress of Women with Jane Addams in 1915 and 1919 (she thought in general that women “do” conferences better than men—“we talk more in private but not nearly so much in public”), opposed the Versailles Treaty as likely to lead only to future wars, and later opposed the Korean War, McCarthyism, the cold war, and the presence of American troops in Vietnam. She visited Russia in 1924 and found almost more industrial hygiene than industry, but deplored the Party leaders’ fanaticism and suppression of individual liberty. From Berlin in 1933, appalled at the Nazi regime, she wrote to her friend Felix Frankfurter, “I wish to confess to you that I am a convert to a strong constitution with all kinds of guarantees and even to a conservative Supreme Court and to private welfare work rather than Governmental. Also I am now a passionate patriot for the first time.”

In 1927, she (along with hundreds of other liberals) took up the cause of Sacco and Vanzetti. When Governor Fuller of Massachusetts refused to commute their death sentence, Dr. Hamilton and five prominent men went to his office to make a personal plea on behalf of the doomed prisoners. She described the interview to Edith:

As he talked to us his florid face would crimson and his neck swell and he had every appearance of hot anger. Then two or three times he would pull himself together, become again the suave automobile salesman, say he was treating us as intimate friends…. He would talk of the sinister propaganda which was behind all this agitation and which had as its inspirer Felix Frankfurter and a hundred and fifty thousand dollars. We, of course, were well-meaning dupes who did not know who was pulling the strings…. Fuller has a fanatical belief in capital punishment. We simply could not make him discuss commutation. With him it was pardon or execution.

She waited with the Frankfurters on the roof garden of the Women’s City Club of Boston, looking out over the Charles River basin as the minutes ticked by till execution. She concluded her letter bitterly, “I am sick of ‘conscientiousness.’ Torquemada was conscientious, so was Cotton Mather. A conscience may be a terrible thing in a man who has no humility, who can never say ‘I might be mistaken.’ ”

Alice Hamilton was in character and sensibility a product of the nineteenth century. Neither her letters nor her autobiography reveals much about her private life (when she submitted the manuscript of the autobiography, her cousin and editor, Edward Weeks, complained that she’d left half the doors to herself locked). She did not, the way many of her contemporaries did, pair off with a special friend to find companionship, domestic stability, affection, and sometimes sexual love in that distinctly American institution, the “Boston marriage.” Edith, for instance, left the Bryn Mawr School in the early 1920s in a crisis that involved illness, trouble with Bryn Mawr College’s difficult president, M. Carey Thomas, and her own developing intimacy with a former student, Doris Reid. As a result, in her fifties, Edith began the writing on classical subjects that established her literary reputation and occupied her for the next forty years. But the Bryn Mawr “fuss,” and her friendship with Doris, with whom she lived for the rest of her life, strained her relations with her sisters. Alice wrote to Margaret in 1923 that Edith had said, “Until I can assure her that I do not and never did consider her in any way abnormal mentally, there can be no coming together again, and as she does not see how that can happen she thinks we never can.”

Whether or not Alice considered Edith “abnormal mentally,” the sisters did not remain permanently estranged, and Alice’s own strong attachment to Jane Addams grew less “school-girly,” though no less deeply admiring, over the course of their many years together. She served as Jane Addams’s personal physician, addressed her by mail as “Dearest Lady,” and took toward her an almost pathologically deferential tone. When they toured Europe together in 1915, Dr. Hamilton wrote to a colleague, “I only trail along as a lady’s maid,” and after the trip she told Miss Addams:

The more I think over that time with you in Europe the more the wonder of it grows on me and it seems so impossible to even begin to thank you for giving it to me…. If ever I got on your nerves, and of course I must have sometimes, you never let me suspect it, and I believe that is the test of real, good comradeship.”

Jane Addams appears to have been the only person outside her family for whom Alice Hamilton had such powerful feelings. But Miss Addams already had a “most intimate friend,” Mary Rozet Smith, a wealthy Chicagoan who gave her unqualified devotion as well as practical and financial support. It is of course impossible to tell in retrospect whether these romantic friendships were literally sexual, and it doesn’t much matter. What seems important is the “healing domesticity,” which Jane Addams found with Mary Smith, Edith Hamilton with Doris Reid, and Alice Hamilton in the communal life of Hull House and the country place she bought with her mother and sisters, Margaret and Norah, at Hadlyme, Connecticut. Late in her life she told a friend that “the deepest and closest relation I have ever known is that between sisters.”

If she ever had a romantic interest in men, her letters do not reveal it, though she struck a rare note of wistfulness when Allen Hamilton was about to marry in 1896: “Do you actually realize yet,” she wrote to a cousin, “that love has come to one of us?” She chose a life of action, which gave her “quite a new story to tell,” but in the end, her epistolary narrative is a bit unyielding. “To live over people’s lives is nothing,” warned Henry James, “unless we live over their perceptions, live over the growth, the change, the varying intensity of the same—since it was by these things they themselves lived.” Though candid and articulate, Alice Hamilton was neither a natural writer nor much given to introspection, and she somehow scants the processes of perception that might have yielded a clearer, stronger picture of her character. As it is, she seems admirable, original, engaging—and slightly out of focus.

This Issue

May 9, 1985