Alice Hamilton Analysis
In her opening remarks, Grant states that she has written this biography as an attempt to make more personal the story of the remarkable Hamilton than the subject did in her own autobiography, Exploring the Dangerous Trades: The Autobiography of Alice Hamilton, M.D. (1943). Hamilton was cooperative and supportive of the author in her work.
As a result of their close relationship, Grant’s portrayal of Hamilton’s life and work is consistently flattering and subjective. In only a few instances does Hamilton show her temper, such as a case of righteous indignation at the outcome of the Sacco-Vanzetti trial. She is continually described as dedicated, stoic, and completely sympathetic to the underprivileged. The book contains many anecdotes detailing Hamilton’s initial reactions to and subsequent aid for a variety of factory and mine workers who were subjected to unhealthy, stressful, and inhumane treatment. In 1911, she investigated factories using lead in enameling bathtubs and other fixtures and found that more than one-third of the workers were exposed to dangerous lead levels from breathing the lead-filled dust in the enameling rooms. Her reports resulted in stricter controls and greater health measures in this industry. Her consistently calm determination is admirable but often can be interpreted as emotionless. More cynical young adult readers might find this continually positive portrayal somewhat unrealistic.
The biographical aspects of the book, the chronological recitation of Hamilton’s achievements and awards, the layperson’s description of her scientific discoveries, and the detailing of the conditions that prompted her research are very interesting and well done. Grant’s vivid rendering of working conditions in factories—such as her descriptions of the heat and fumes in the lead smelters that poisoned the air that the workers breathed or of health care that consisted of an old Civil War surgeon who saw the injured after an inspection by the company lawyer—serves to intensify the seriousness of the situations that Hamilton encountered.
In attempting to cover the entire spectrum of Hamilton’s life and interests, however, the author spends much of the book explaining her subject’s involvement in the pre-World War I peace movement with Addams and her connection to the protests concerning the outcome of the Sacco-Vanzetti murder trial in 1921. Extensive quotations from political documents in the former and court records in the latter seem to interrupt the flow of the biographical text. Grant’s intention to make personal the life story of a very unusual woman is admirable, but in choosing this approach, she may sacrifice some of the book’s appeal to young readers. In contrast, the descriptions of Hamilton as a school girl and especially as a medical student are particularly engaging. The strict segregation of the sexes in the anatomy lecture halls and laboratories is humorously described. Hamilton’s early interest in pathology and her dislike of surgery were indicative of her future career in research.
Hamilton emerges, at the conclusion of the book, as a strong, admirable woman who overcame tremendous prejudice against her gender to crusade for health and social issues on a scale never before seen. Even though her name is not well known, the effects of her work in medical and social reform are widespread.