Alice Hamilton a pioneer in occupational health

In April 1917, the US entered the World War.  George only had occasional service duties he needed to fulfill.  He served in the fall of that year for two months as a Contract Surgeon in the Army.  His duties were mundane.  He performed physical examinations on thousands of recruits for the newly created 26th infantry division.  The men of the 26th would see significant action in April of 1918, fighting alongside the French against the German Army, but George never was involved.

The Army called him back to service in the summer of 1918.  At a munitions plant in New Jersey, several workers had died of some type of poisoning.  The Army tasked Dr. Alice Hamilton to find out what was going on.  Alice Hamilton was a pioneer in the field of occupational health.  She was the first woman appointed to the Harvard University faculty, in 1919.  She had done some work at MGH, where she knew about George Minot.  She requested that George be added to the team of investigators she was leading.  He applied his knowledge of blood to this problem, and found that exposure to the munitions killed off red blood cells.  But just as importantly, he found that if one hadn’t lost too many red blood cells and the exposure was stopped, one could fully recover from the poisoning.

The puzzle of the munitions factories was solved by Alice Hamilton.  She found that the poison was the explosive TNT (trinitrotoluene).  She determined that TNT poisoning mainly occurs through contact with the skin, not from breathing vapors. The absorption was cumulative, but rapidly eliminated when there was no exposure.  Based on these observations, she recommended that men working with TNT should wear protective clothing, remove the protective clothing when leaving the factory and bathe at the end of the shift to remove any TNT in contact with their skin.

George’s contribution made for interesting science, but had little impact on Dr Alice Walker’s report.  She wrote, “the changes in the blood that are found among these TNT workers have been only briefly mentioned, because they are chiefly of scientific interest.”