Reducing and controlling environmental and occupational hazards has become hugely important in recent history. These days, people dedicate their entire careers to researching ways to reduce emissions, keep our drinking water clean, and ensure safe work environments; but that was not always the case. It took decades of hard work to raise awareness of these issues and build a sound framework of understanding and acceptance.
In celebration of Women’s History Month, here are four women who helped blaze trails in their fields and ultimately made the world a safer place.
During the Industrial Revolution, rapidly-proliferating factories operated with their pollutants unchecked, making an impact we are still seeing today. Mary Walton, a Manhattan resident, recognized the adverse effects the pollutants were having and set out to find a solution. In 1879, she developed a system for smoke stack emissions to be deflected through water tanks and later flushed into the city’s sewage systems.
After her first big accomplishment, she set out to help reduce noise pollution caused by the teeth-chattering vibrations of locomotives. Walton worked independently and set up a work space in her basement to explore ways to alleviate railroad noise. The result was a box-like frame made of wood coated with tar, lined with cotton, and filled with sand. As the model train raced down the tracks, the vibrations and sound were absorbed. The apparatus was tested in real conditions, and after receiving a patent, Walton sold the rights to New York City’s Metropolitan Railroad.
Rachel Carson (1907 – 1964)
Rachel Carson grew up on a small farm in Pennsylvania where her passion for protecting the earth came naturally. In college she switched her major from English to biology, and after graduate school and teaching for a few years she took a position with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. Carson had grown to possess exceptional writing skills and earned the title of editor in chief of their publications, giving her a valuable outlet to share her knowledge and concerns. Her most notable work came in 1962 when she brazenly wrote of the detrimental effects of human-produced chemicals, namely pesticides, have on the environment. Silent Spring became a bestseller, DDT was later banned, and her work gave the public a different perspective to look at the way our actions may affect the environment.
Lillian Gilbreth (1878 – 1972)
Lillian Gilbreth’s name is mentioned many times in concert with Frank Gilbreth, her husband and professional partner. Together they completed motion studies in construction workers across different sectors to find more efficient and consistent ways to complete tasks. The outcome of their motion and fatigue studies were precursors to modern-day ergonomics.
Gilbreth was highly influential in the psychology field as well, and is often hailed as the first organizational psychologist. She did everything while raising her large family on her own after her husband passed away. Her work made a lasting impact on the engineering, industrial hygiene, and psychology fields. The Gilbreths have multiple awards named in their honor that are given by the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Industrial Engineers.
Alice Hamilton (1869 – 1970)
Alice Hamilton played a pivotal role in the modern understanding of occupational health and illnesses. After earning her degree in medicine from the University of Michigan, she traveled to Europe to begin her advanced studies in bacteriology and pathology. Upon her return to the states, she continued studying at Johns Hopkins, eventually relocating to Chicago for a professorship at Northwestern. Hamilton became a full member at Hull House where she primarily focused on medical research in public health and occupational safety.
Through the course of her career, she became an expert in toxicology and studied occupational illnesses and the dangers of metals and chemical compounds on the human body. In 1910 she was appointed to the new Occupational Diseases Commission of Illinois, and in the succeeding decade analyzed issues for state and federal health committees. Hamilton became the first woman appointed to Harvard University’s Department of Industrial Medicine as an assistant professor in 1919 and five years later served as the only woman member of the League of Nations Health Committee.
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