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Alice Hamilton: a life in letters.

Alice Hamilton, who died in 1970 at the age of 101, was a doctor and a pioneer in the field of industrial medicine, the first woman appointed to teach at Harvard, a longtime resident and participant in the reform activities of Hull House and a committed political activist. She exposed the dangers of various manufactured substances and worked tirelessly for improved health among factory workers. In spite of her distinguished career, she has been less well known than her sister, Edith, the classical scholar.

In this volume, Barbara Sicherman presents an assortment of letters she considers representative of Hamilton's intellectual, political and personal life and connects them with informative essays which provide the reader with the appropriate historical and social context. The letters are, like their author, observant, thorough and thoughtful, and they provide an excellent introduction to her public life. Sicherman contends that they also elucidate the personal side of hamilton's life, but here the material is more elusive and leaves its author as much a mystery to us as she seems to have been to herself. Sicherman's comments are sensitive and enlightening, but having decided against a full-scale biography she couldn't pursue several questions and themes which emerge from the life of this fascinating and complex woman.

Since this is a book about a woman of remarkable achievements, one must ask some of the obvious questions as to what in her socialization enabled her to develop her talents. What, for instance, prompted Hamilton to dismiss the possibility of marriage and children? How did she chart her career? And how did she expand her narrowly moralistic upbringing into the broad social vision that ultimately inspired her?

As far back as her boarding-school days, Hamilton's friends noted her aversion to marriage. She habitually made self-deprecating remarks about her appearance and would invariably single out the ugliest girl to sit with at dances, thus insuring that she, too, would be a wallflower. While entertaining a potential suitor she wrote how difficult it was to amuse him and how, in his company, she lost the freedom to enjoy herself: "Don't you know the feeling that you must not sit down for a half hour with a novel . . . you must devise some way to spend the evening, you must have pleasant conversation at the table." When she took a walk with him all she could think about were the sort of sarcastic remarks that she would have made upon seeing such a couple. At the University of Michigan, where she studied medicine, she was puzzled and somewhat annoyed to find that most young women looked to men for fun. "About the lovely times that girls have just among themselves, they know nothing."

Hamilton's relationship with her cousin Allen Williams reveals much about her feelings toward marriage, men and motherhood. In the mid-1890s she was working at the New England Hospital in Boston. Williams, who was also pursuing his medical studies, persistently tried to resume their childhood intimacy. But Hamilton could not believe he was sincere and felt that she couldn't speak freely with him, as she imagined he was always judging her and finding her "cruel, unjust, hard and wrong." Since there is no evidence that Williams harbored such thoughts, it seems clear that his affection had stirred up Hamilton's distaste for men. When Williams unexpectedly announced that he was marrying a medical student, Hamilton set down several thoughts illuminating her unhappy assessment of men. At first she expressed amazement at the notion that Williams was capable of love. She had always imagined him marrying "somebody who loved him tremendously and whom he liked in a cool sort of way." As to his proposed wife's studying medicine, she thought it "nonsense." She disapproved of married women getting professional training, announcing 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 childbearing and rearing the coming generation. We will go down the path of degeneration if we lose our mothers and our home-life." This outburst seems strange from a woman who frequently commented on how difficult and compromising family life was to women's health and happiness, until one realizes that her decision to become a doctor was designed to close forever the question of her marrying.

One must look to Hamilton's childhood to explain the strength of her conviction on this matter. She and her extended family were the aristocracy of Fort Wayne, Indiana. Her parents, Montgomery and Gertrude Hamilton, oversaw the rigorous academic and moral education of their five children. The family, isolated by culture, money and sensibility, became an inward-looking, self-sufficient unit, but the parents' marriage was not, apparently, a prepossessing one. Montgomery was difficult and eventually became an alcoholic. His drinking must have had painful effects on this oversensitive, tightly knit group. It seems likely that Gertrude described to her daughters only the worst aspects of her marriage. One can deduce that there must have been positive aspects, since she steadfastly refused to divorce Montgomery and astonished her children in her final illness by telling them how much comfort her husband's presence and assurances had given her. In any case, the family dynamics--along with the tension between the girls' extraordinary education and the extreme moral demands placed upon them as females--evidently convinced all four that they could either become wives or people. Their younger brother was the only Hamilton to marry.

On reading the letters one is struck by the rare intensity of moral purpose in Alice Hamilton's life. Her goal was always service, but it took her some time to settle on which service and for whom. Throughout her life she was called upon to perform the caretaking role that society expects from women. She nursed her sisters through illnesses and was to be found when needed at the bedside of her colleague and friend Jane Addams. She helped her younger sister Norah recover from a nervous breakdown. These were difficult periods for her. She later believed that something about the manner of her care had alienated Norah. She hesitated before tending to Addams. When her sister Margaret expressed misgivings about the home Hamilton had bought for them in Connecticut, she wrote saying that the one thing she could not bear was having Margaret worry about the house. "I got it for you and it simply must make you happy or I shall not know what to do." The remark reveals much about the helplessness and irritation Hamilton seemed to feel when confronted with the needs of others. Her medical experience filled her with frustration, a consequence of the disgust and inadequacy she felt when assisting at childbirth or caring for the sick. Over the years she began to see that closeness troubled her, not service. Once she invented a system for coping with excessive family intimacy, whereby people would eat breakfast alone, "their lunch perhaps with the family, and for dinner they should always have some outsiders so that family subjects cannot be discussed."

By 1919, when she was appointed to the faculty of Harvard, she felt that her life had become settled. She had resolved many of the conflicts that disturbed her earlier years. By moving from clinical medicine to research, she combined her drive to be useful with her need for distance. By becoming an investigator of factories, she put her family training in diplomacy to use. All the years spent working out her carer and her need for independence contributed to the remarkable openmindedness which gave her life such scope. Her travels, her experience with people with people from different classes and her research taught her not to judge people too narrowly. She once said of Carrie Chapman Att that she wasn't "a big woman, none of the absolute suffragists are"; the same could not be said of her.

Arguably her greatest triumph was this breadth of vision which prevented her from getting deeply involved in the limited, moralistic issues of her generation such as temperance and social purity. Instead she concentrated on the wider causes of pacifism and freedom of speech. Feminist issues interested her, but she subjected them to her own thoughtful standards. She opposed the Equal Rights Amendment, for example, on the ground that it threatened protective legislation for working women. In the 1950s she retracted her opposition, having decided with characteristic fairness that her objection no longer held up.

Surprisingly, this openmindedness and ability to rethink her positions operated even on a personal level, enabling her in her later years to establish two very important friendships with men. For years she corresponded with Felix Frankfurter, often chiding him on the ethical failings of some of his decisions. And in her 80s, she became close to former president of the New York Bar Association Charles C. Burlingham, a dedicated reformer and a man of extraordinary intelligence. When he died, Hamilton wrote that it was "curious" how much she missed him, evidently marveling at the affection a man had elicited from her.

To the end of her life, Alice Hamilton remained a product of her beginnings--she demanded a great deal of herself and of others and was fiercely self-deprecatory. A scant three days after Christmas in 1961 she wrote apologizing to a friend for being so late in thanking her for a gift. Kennedy's inauguration speech she found "excellent" but his wife's hat and hairdo were "deplorable." When Connecticut College for Women wrote for permission to put her name and Edith's on a new dormitory, Hamilton replied that the idea was fine but stipulated that her name follow her sister's. She explained that while her own work was already out of date, Greece and Rome were timeless, and also that Edith was the older sister and "her name belongs in the first place." That firm step to the side was the last measure in the dance of deference which her parents and society had begun teaching her ninety-one years before. One must be both grateful and admiring that Alice Hamilton never allowed her feminine training to disfigure her intellect or constrict her goals.
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Author:Saxton, Martha
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 17, 1984
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