Alice Hamilton, the sister of Edith Hamilton, was born in New York on 27th February, 1869. According to Harriet Hyman Alonso: "Alice Hamilton, daughter of a wealthy entrepreneurial businessman in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and reared in a traditional Presbyterian family that valued philanthropy and education. Both her parents (particularly her mother) contributed great sums of money to community organizations, especially those addressing charity and the elimination of poverty. In addition, her mother was an early advocate of both temperance and woman suffrage, which introduced Hamilton to issues of concern to women."
Hamilton graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School in 1893. She served internships at hospitals in Minneapolis and Boston before studying bacteriology at the University of Leipzig and at the Johns Hopkins Medical School. In 1897, after graduate work in bacteriology and pathology, she accepted a position as professor of pathology and director of the histological and pathological laboratories at the Woman's Medical School at Northwestern University in Chicago.
After hearing a speech by Jane Addams she decided to join the Hull House settlement in the city. Other social reformers living at the settlement included Ellen Gates Starr, Alzina Stevens, Edith Abbott, Grace Abbott, Florence Kelley, Julia Lathrop, and Sophonisba Breckinridge. Hamilton increasing became interested in social issues. In 1910 Charles S. Deneen, the governor of Illinois, appointed her to a commission to investigate occupational diseases. She studied industrial poisoning in the lead, rubber and munitions industries and was able to prove that lead, nitrous fumes and viscose rayon were causing serious side effects including mental illness, loss of vision, paralysis and in some cases, death. Hamilton used this evidence to pressurize politicians to pass workmen's compensation laws and factory owners to provide safer working conditions. Hamilton's research into the dangers of industrial pollution was also used in the campaign against child labour.
On the outbreak of the First World War, Hamilton and a group of women pacifists in the United States, began talking about the need to form an organization to help bring it to an end. On the 10th January, 1915, over 3,000 women attended a meeting in the ballroom of the New Willard Hotel in Washington and formed the Woman's Peace Party. Other women involved in the organization included Jane Addams, Mary McDowell, Florence Kelley, Anna Howard Shaw, Belle La Follette, Fanny Garrison Villard, Emily Balch, Jeanette Rankin, Lillian Wald, Edith Abbott, Grace Abbott, Crystal Eastman, Carrie Chapman Catt, Emily Bach, and Sophonisba Breckinridge.
In April 1915, Arletta Jacobs, a suffragist in Holland, invited members of the Woman's Peace Party to an International Congress of Women in the Hague. Hamilton, Jane Addams, Grace Abbott and Emily Bach were chosen to represent the United States. Others who went to the Hague included Lida Gustava Heymann (Germany); Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, Emily Hobhouse, (England); Chrystal Macmillan (Scotland) and Rosika Schwimmer (Hungary).
Hamilton visited Germany in 1915. She later recalled: "One must always remember that most Germans read nothing and hear nothing from the outside. I talked with an old friend, the wife of a professor under whom I worked years ago when I was studying bacteriology in Germany. She and her husband are people with cosmopolitan connections, they read three languages beside their own, and have always been as far removed as possible from narrow provincialism, but since last July they have known nothing except what their Government has decided that they shall know. I did not argue with my friend, but, of course, we talked much together and after she had been with us for three days she told me that she had never known before that there were people in England who did not wish to crush Germany, who wished for a just settlement, and even some who were opposed to the war."
The women were attacked in the press by Theodore Roosevelt who described them as "hysterical pacifists" and called their proposals "both silly and base". Hamilton, along with Jane Addams, Florence Kelley, Alice Hamilton, Emily Balch, Mary Church Terrell, Jeanette Rankin and Lillian Wald attended the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom conference in Zurich in April, 1919. After the conference Hamilton and Addams made a tour of the Western Front.
Hamilton lived in Hull House for twenty-two years and thereafter returned for several months every year while Jane Addams was alive. In 1919 Hamilton became the first woman to be appointed to the staff at the Harvard Medical School. She also did studies on industrial pollution for the federal government and the United Nations. She also wrote several books including Industrial Poisons in the United States (1925), Industrial Toxicology (1934) and Exploring the Dangerous Trades (1943).
Hamilton was a member of the League of Women Voters, the Women's Trade Union League, the National Consumer's League, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. In 1927 Hamilton joined with John Dos Passos, Paul Kellogg, Jane Addams, Upton Sinclair, Dorothy Parker, Ben Shahn, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Floyd Dell, George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells in an effort to prevent the execution of Nicola Sacco and Bertolomeo Vanzetti.
Even after Hamilton retired she continued to be active in politics and campaigned against McCarthyism, the execution of Julius Rosenberg and Ethel Rosenberg, and the Vietnam War. At the age of eighty-eight Hamilton remarked that: "For me the satisfaction is that things are better now, and I had some part in it."
Alice Hamilton died on 22nd September, 1970, aged 101.