Harriet Hardy

Harriet Hardy (1905-1993) identified the often-fatal respiratory disease berylliosis, making her one of the world's foremost authorities in the field of occupational medicine.

Harriet Hardy intended to be a simple general practitioner, but fortuitous events changed that plan. Through the investigation of a respiratory illness that was common among factory workers in two towns in Massachusetts, she discovered the often-fatal respiratory disease berylliosis—a discovery that led to her becoming one of the world's foremost authorities in the field of occupational medicine. In the course of her long career she battled against numerous diseases caused by dangerous substances to which workers are exposed, including silicosis and asbestosis.

Born on September 23, 1905 in Arlington, Massachusetts, Harriet Louise Hardy set her course early on for a career in medicine. In 1928 she graduated from Wellesley College, and four years later earned her M.D. from Cornell University. After interning and spending her residency at Philadelphia General Hospital, she started her practice at Northfield Seminary in Massachusetts as a school doctor. This simple practice, however, did not last long, and by 1939 she had accepted a post as college doctor and director of health education at Cambridge's Radcliffe College. It was here, while researching the fields of women's health and fitness, that Hardy's interests expanded to include industrial diseases.

In the early 1940s, Hardy began a collaboration with Joseph Aubt to study the effects of lead poisoning. Like Alice Hamilton and other pioneering pathologists of the time, Hardy began to recognize the dangers inherent in the modern factory, with workers coming into contact with all manner of toxic substances. There soon came word of a strange respiratory disease among the workers in the Sylvania and General Electric fluorescent lamp factories in nearby Lynn and Salem, Massachusetts. The sufferers all complained of shortness of breath, coughing, and loss of weight; in some cases, the disease was fatal. Hardy and her colleagues were initially baffled as to the cause of the disease, but it occurred to Hardy that the disease had to be occupationally related. Referring to research from Europe and Russia, Hardy finally found the connection to beryllium; a light metal used in the manufacture of fluorescent lamps, beryllium dust or vapor could be easily inhaled by factory workers. Hardy showed that this outbreak was indeed berylliosis, a condition whose symptoms sometimes are not manifested for up to 20 years after exposure to beryllium dust. Hardy subsequently became an expert in beryllium poisoning, writing papers which educated and alerted the medical community to its dangers. She also established a registry of berylliosis cases at the Massachusetts General Hospital (where she had been on staff since 1940); this registry later served as a model for the tracking of other occupation-related disorders.

Hardy went on to establish a clinic of occupational medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in 1947, directing it for the next 24 years. She continued to explore the disease-producing properties of work-related substances, and in 1954 she was among the first scientists to identify a link between asbestos and cancer. Hardy was also concerned with the effects of radiation on the human body; she worked with the Atomic Energy Commission in Los Alamos, New Mexico, to study radiation poisoning, making a number of suggestions toward better working conditions in nuclear power plants. In 1949 she teamed up with Hamilton to write the second edition of Industrial Toxicology, which has become a standard text on the subject. Other areas of Hardy's research and investigation included mercury poisoning and treatments for lead poisoning. She also researched the harmful effects of benzene, and as a result of her findings the highest permissible concentration of the hydrocarbon used in industry was reduced by fifty percent.

In 1955 she was named Woman of the Year by the American Medical Women's Association. An outspoken and forceful critic for change, Hardy was appointed clinical professor at Harvard Medical School in 1971, and during the course of her long career authored over 100 scientific articles. She died of an immune system cancer, lymphoma, on October 13, 1993 at Massachusetts General Hospital.


Further Reading on Harriet Hardy

Harvard Medical School Focus, October 21, 1993, p. 9.

Journal of the American Medical Women's Association, November, 1955, p. 402.

New York Times, October 15, 1993, p. B10.