Alice Hamilton hates heavy metal

In the early 1920s, scientists from a wide range of disciplines were involved in what the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has called “the frantic search” for a fuel additive that would improve the performance of internal combustion engines. 

In a 1985 EPA Journal report titled “Lead Poisoning: A Historical Perspective”, the agency stated: “Iodine, aniline, selenium and other substances had all fallen by the wayside.

“Then, in December 1921, three General Motors engineers – Charles Kettering, Thomas Midgley and Thomas Boyd – reported tremendous success with their first test of tetraethyl lead. Through the Ethyl Corporation, then a GM subsidiary, GM quickly began touting this lead compound as the virtual saviour of the American automobile industry.”

The EPA report says this “paved the way for the development of the high-power, high-compression internal combustion engines that were to win World War II and dominate the automotive industry until the early 1970s”.

Of course, this seemingly simple solution turned out to be more killer than “virtual saviour”.

“The use of lead as a petrol additive has been a catastrophe for public health,” said a 2002 report titled “The Worldwide Problem of Lead in Petrol”, in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization.

“Leaded petrol has caused more exposure to lead than any other source worldwide,” the WHO stated. “By contaminating air, dust, soil, drinking water and food crops, it has caused harmfully high human blood lead levels around the world, especially in children.”

In a 1985 paper in the American Journal of Public Health, titled “A ‘Gift of God’?: The Public Health Controversy over Leaded Gasoline during the 1920s”, researchers David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz said most public health experts were at least aware of “the possible adverse effects of leaded gasoline” by the 1970s. 

However, they contended that “as early as the 1920s, public health experts, government officials, scientists, corporate leaders, labour, and the public were acutely aware of the dangers posed by the introduction of lead into gasoline”.

Rosner and Markowitz cite, as an example, the Standard Oil Company’s experimental laboratories in Elizabeth, New Jersey: “Between 26 October and 30 October 1924, five workers died and 35 others experienced severe palsies, tremors, hallucinations, and other serious neurological symptoms of organic lead poisoning. Thus, of 49 workers in the tetraethyl lead processing plant, over 80% died or were severely poisoned. Reporting on the story, the New York Times quoted a company doctor who suggested that, ‘Nothing ought to be said about this matter in the public interest’, and one of the supervisors at the Bayway facility, who said, ‘These men probably went insane because they worked too hard’.”

In response to a growing number of public health issues arising from the production of tetraethyl lead and its use in petrol, the US surgeon general, Haven Emerson, organised a conference of representatives from business, labour and public health to assess the situation. It was convened on 20 May 1925 in Washington, DC.

One person who raised a voice at the conference against the combined political and commercial interests advocating the use of tetraethyl lead in petrol was Alice Hamilton. 

As “one of the country’s foremost authorities on lead”, say Rosner and Markowitz, Hamilton told the conference that she believed “the environmental health issues were far more important than the occupational health and safety issues, adding that she “doubted that any effective measures could be implemented to protect the general public from the hazards of widespread use of leaded gasoline”. 

Alice Hamilton was born on 27 February 1869, in Manhattan, New York. A biography of her produced for the Changing the Face of Medicine website by the US National Library of Medicine (NLM) calls her “a leading expert in the field of occupational health”, and “a pioneer in the field of toxicology, studying occupational illnesses and the dangerous effects of industrial metals and chemical compounds on the human body”.

In 1893 she received a Doctor of Medicine degree from the University of Michigan, and then completed internships at the Minneapolis Hospital for Women and Children and the New England Hospital for Women and Children.

She then headed overseas, to study bacteriology and pathology at universities in Munich and Leipzig from 1895 to 1897, returning to the US for postgraduate studies at the Johns Hopkins University Medical School. 

In 1897 she moved to Chicago, where she became a professor of pathology at the Woman’s Medical School of Northwestern University. 

In 1919 Hamilton became the first woman appointed to the faculty of Harvard Medical School, in the new Department of Industrial Medicine. The NLM story cites a New York Tribune newspaper article that celebrated her success with the headline: “A Woman on Harvard Faculty – The Last Citadel Has Fallen – The Sex Has Come Into Its Own.”

After the Washington, DC conference had ended, Hamilton released a statement: “I am not one of those who believe that the use of this leaded gasoline can ever be made safe. No lead industry has ever, even under the strictest control, lost all its dangers. Where there is lead, some case of lead poisoning sooner or later develops, even under the strictest supervision.”

Hamilton lived to the age of 101. She died at her home in Hadlyme, Connecticut, on 22 September 1970, after which the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention published a commemorative article

“In her field investigations, she applied precepts of scientific integrity and prudent public health practice that continue to influence the discipline of occupational health,” the CDC wrote.

“Alice Hamilton was a physician, scientist, humanitarian, and undisputed leader in the social reform movement of the 20th century.”

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