Connecticut College Magazine · Spring 2011


On the cover: Writer/producer Lee Eisenberg '99 entertainS a packed evans hall in the first of a series of centennial "Conversations with alumni" in January. Photo by Bob Macdonnell

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Those Extraordinary Hamilton Sisters

Those Extraordinary Hamilton Sisters
A 1945 portrait of Alice Hamilton by W. Langdon Kihn hangs in the Hamilton House common room.

Hamilton House is dedicated to two of the most distinguished women of the 20th century

By Linda J. Lear '62

Hamilton House, one of the six dormitories in Connecticut College's North Complex, was dedicated in 1962 in honor of two sisters whose contributions to scholarship and public service exemplify the highest values of a liberal arts education. But in recent years, their accomplishments have been almost forgotten. The Centennial is a good time to remember those extraordinary Hamilton sisters.

Edith and Alice Hamilton were two of the most distinguished women of the 20th century. Edith was considered the pre-eminent American classicist of her time. Alice, a founder of the field of industrial toxicology and occupational medicine, was also the first woman appointed to the Harvard Medical School faculty. In 1987 the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health named its research facility the Alice Hamilton Laboratory, and her image graces the 55-cent stamp issued in 1995 as part of the Great Americans Series.

In January 1962 President Rosemary Park announced that one of the new dormitories would be named for the Hamiltons, long-time residents of Hadlyme Ferry, Conn., for their contributions to the fields of literature and medicine. Both sisters were in their 90s at the time. A month earlier Park had written to Alice Hamilton informing her of the trustees' desire and asking her approval. Alice consented but insisted that Edith's name take pride of place since she believed Edith's work was of greater value and Edith was the older. The name “Hamilton House” was quietly applied to the dormitory in the spring term of 1962.

Edith (1867-1963), Alice (1869-1970) and their three younger siblings were home-schooled by their patrician parents. The Irish-American Hamiltons were distinguished by their commitment to social improvement, their broad intellectual interests and their love of learning. Edith and Alice were sent off to Miss Porter's Finishing School for Young Ladies in Farmington, Conn. Edith subsequently graduated from Bryn Mawr College in 1894 with an M.A. and a fellowship to study classics in Germany, where she hoped to earn her doctorate.

Alice completed her medical degree at the University of Michigan in 1893, medicine being one of the few disciplines available to this first generation of women who sought university educations and professional careers. After completing internships at the Minneapolis Hospital for Women and Children and the New England Hospital for Women and Children, Alice planned to study in pathology in Germany.

The sisters set out in 1895 to Munich, recognized as the center for classical studies in Europe, and thereafter to the University of Leipzig. At both universities they discovered that female students had limited access to lectures and laboratories. At Munich Edith had to sit on the lecture platform so as not to “contaminate” the male students; at Leipzig, she was sequestered behind a curtain in an alcove built especially for her. Alice was permitted to attend lectures in bacteriology and pathology — on the condition that she make herself “totally inconspicuous” to male students and professors.

Edith returned to the U.S. without a doctorate in 1896 to become the headmistress of the distinguished Bryn Mawr Preparatory School in Baltimore. There, for the next 26 years, she directed the education of hundreds of young women. After her retirement in 1922, she moved to New York City and began her writing career. Hamilton published her first and perhaps most famous book, “The Greek Way,” in 1930 at age 62. Nearly a dozen more studies on life in ancient Greece followed, including “The Roman Way” (1932); “Mythology” (1942), which remains one of the premier texts on the subject; and “The Echo of Greece” (1957).

Edith's work, which expressed “the calm lucidity of the Greek mind,” won critical and popular acclaim. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and received many honorary degrees and awards. The high point of her life came in 1957 at the age of 90 when Greece awarded her the Golden Cross of the Order of Benefaction, making her an honorary citizen of Athens. Edith died in Washington, D.C., in 1963, at the age of 96.

Alice Hamilton bought a large Victorian house in Hadlyme Ferry in 1916 so that in retirement she and her sisters, none of whom married, would have a familiar place to live. During their busy careers, the sisters enjoyed the summer months in Connecticut and had an active social life in the greater New London community. Their home was the center of an intellectual circle that included such luminaries as Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, Walter Lippman, Charles and Mary Beard, and Herbert Croly. It also included members of the Connecticut College faculty such as Hannah Hafkesbrink, Rosemary Park, Dorothy Bethurum and Chester McDestler.

Despite her protests, Alice's accomplishments were perhaps even more distinguished than her sister's — although she is the one we know least about. Returning to the U.S. in 1896, Alice became an early resident of Hull House, the settlement house in Chicago founded by Jane Addams. She organized medical education classes for the poor neighbors and established a well-baby clinic. During the typhoid epidemic in 1902, Alice made the connection between improper sewage disposal and the role of flies in transmitting disease. She also believed the health problems of many immigrant poor were caused by unsafe working conditions and exposure to toxic chemicals. She studied the “dangerous trades” in Europe intent upon bringing the science of occupational medicine to the U.S.

Like her mentor, Addams, Alice felt herself uniquely privileged and thus obliged to prove herself of worth to society, family and herself. Like many of her generation, she insisted that a woman must choose between career and marriage, though she acknowledged that such a choice came at a huge emotional cost.

In 1910 Hamilton became director of the first Occupational Disease Commission in Illinois, where she studied the hazards posed to workers by exposure to lead, arsenic, mercury and organic solvents as well as radium, and gained legislative support for worker's compensation laws. Her investigations included carbon monoxide poisoning among steel workers, mercury poisoning in hatters, and the “dead finger” syndrome among workers using jackhammers. She was an opponent of the addition of tetraethyl lead to gasoline, fearing correctly its toxic fumes would cause a variety of pulmonary and blood diseases.

When World War I broke out, Alice joined a delegation headed by Addams to the International Congress of Women at The Hague. After the war she served on the League of Nations Health Committee, which allowed her to investigate industrial health conditions in Europe and the USSR.

Hamilton's life changed dramatically in 1919 when she accepted Harvard's offer to be the first woman appointed to the medical school's faculty, as assistant professor of industrial medicine. Ironically all her students were male. The medical school made three requirements for her appointment: she would not be allowed use of the Faculty Club; she would have no access to football tickets; and she would not be allowed to march in academic processions.

Undaunted, she protested against the Sacco-Vanzetti trial and walked picket lines during the mill strikes in Lowell, Mass. Hamilton's observations of working conditions in Russia led the U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities to label her a supporter of “Communist fronts.” She also warned of German ambitions in the late 1930s and expressed outrage over its policies of racial intolerance. At the age of 93, Alice signed an open letter protesting U.S. military involvement in Vietnam.

Hamilton was also appointed to the faculty of Harvard's School of Public Health. This appointment allowed her to investigate industrial health in countries all over the world. In 1925 she published “Industrial Poisons in the United States.” Her landmark study, “Industrial Toxicology,” appeared in 1934. Alice retired from Harvard as professor emerita in 1935 and settled in Hadlyme Ferry. She published her autobiography, “Exploring the Dangerous Trades,” in 1943.

In 1944 Professor McDestler and others began to solicit papers for a “Women's Collection” within the College Library. Alice agreed to give a group of her papers, including important lectures and speeches. These were later augmented by gifts from the labor leader Belle Moskowitz as well as from New Deal Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins.

In 1960, Alice Hamilton was invited to the College on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jane Addams. In 1936 the College had named its 11th residence hall in honor of Addams, and Hamilton donated a bronze medallion of Addams to hang in the living room. For this occasion, Richard Lowitt of the history department selected six of the best student papers to be read at an assembly. Hamilton, then 90, listened with interest and then spoke vividly of her own experiences at Hull House and of her admiration for Addams. She lived vigorously for another decade, dying at the age of 101, in 1970.

Park's decision to dedicate a dormitory honoring the Hamilton sisters was an inspiration not only to the female students at the time, but for all students interested in the connection between the environment and disease. Today, when women's achievements are commonplace, Hamilton House serves to remind us of two pioneers who made a lasting contribution to society, to education and to the tradition of excellence that continues to define Connecticut College.

Linda J. Lear '62, an environmental historian and biographer, is the author of “Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature” and “Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature.” A history major at Connecticut College, she earned her M.A. from Columbia University and Ph.D. from George Washington University. Since 2004 she has served as a trustee of Connecticut College.

Edith Hamilton's papers are at Princeton University and the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University. The Linda Lear Center for Special Collections and Archives holds a small but excellent selection of Alice Hamilton's papers. Larger collections are at the Schlesinger Library, the Harvard School of Public Health and the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine at Harvard Medical School.

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