Alice Hamilton: A Life in Letters

by Barbara Sicherman. Harvard, $25.00. Alice Hamilton, renowned as a pioneer of industrial medicine, belonged to that generation of women who, finding advanced educational opportunities available to them, set out to correct the world through learning. She was born in 1869, to a large and cultivated family whose inherited wealth and clannish self-sufficiency might easily have provided her with a lifelong cocoon against reality, but instead of drowsing over Dante, she attacked the scientific present, studying medicine in Germany, working with Jane Addams at Hull House, investigating “dangerous trades” for President Woodrow Wilson, and even serving on the Harvard faculty, although that bastion of male supremacy hated to admit that she was actually present. (She was not admitted to the Faculty Club premises and—ultimate horror— was denied tickets to football games.) Her letters, amplified by Ms. Sicherman’s text, reveal her development from a reserved, supercilious (non-Hamiltons merited no more than amused pity, and lowerclass non-Hamiltons received benign contempt), rather prissy girl to a woman of wide sympathies, formidable expertise in her field, physical courage, and diplomatic skill. She was such a persistent and outspoken advocate of social improvement and political reform that the FBI was still eyeing her nervously when she was in her nineties. She, meanwhile, was writing letters of advice and reproach to Supreme Court justices and attorneys general. She was a great woman and, to the reader’s pleasure, a letter writer with a graceful style, real skill in description, and a tart, even catty, sense of humor.