WHEN I WAS a child Eleanor Roosevelt was held up to me as a model American gentlewoman devoted to a life of public service and social reform. She was beloved in my family for the vigor of her intelligence, the directness of her speech and behavior, the integrity of her judgments. We knew of Mrs. Roosevelt at that time because she was married to a man of distinction and we thought her one of a kind, but there were in fact (then as always) many Eleanor Roosevelts in America. One of them was Alice Hamilton, the doctor who pioneered the development of industrial medicine and worked throughout a long life -- she died in 1970 at the age of 101 -- in the cause of labor legislation, civil liberties, and world peace This book is a collection of her letters bound together with an explanatory narrative written by the historian who edited the collection, to form a kind of autobiography.

Alice Hamilton was born in 1869 in Fort Wayne, Indiana, into a large, prosperous, educated family with a strong sense of breeding and of Christian duty. She and her sisters and brother grew up with a huge number of cousins in a family compound. Among the younger Hamiltons were 12 girls who never married. Alice was one. Her sister Edith, the writer and classicist, was another, as was her sister, Margaret, who taught at the Bryn Mawr School, and her cousin, Agnes, who worked for years at a religious settlement house in Philadelphia. These women lived well into their nineties and were all actively engaged in teaching, writing, church and settlement work. They remained intimates, lived together on and off in one combination or another throughout their long lives, and formed the nucleus of an extended community of women like themselves: "sisters" in something of the modern sense.

Alice went to medical school in 1892 because she thought she wanted to be a scientist, but upon graduation she began to flounder. In 1897 she came to Chicago to work as a pathologist, applied for residence at Jane Addams' Hull House, and discovered she was a natural at settlement house life. It "satisfied every longing, for companionship, for the excitement of new experiences, for constant intellectual stimulation, and for the sense of being caught up in a big movement which enlisted my enthusiastic loyalty." Here at Hull House she found her true self. Her medical knowledge became harnessed to a passion for social reform that grew steadily under the immense influence of Jane Addams, and of the working- class people whose lives daily stirred her to compassion and indignation. She remained at Hull House for 22 years.

Hamilton's first public venture was an investigation of cocaine begun at Hull House in 1904 because of the addiction among boys in the neighborhood. She rounded up samples of the drug, learned the toxicological tests, performed them on animals and on herself, then lobbied for legislation that would increase penalties for sellers, and in 1907 experienced the triumph of seeing a state law incorporate most of her suggestions. She then became involved in the antitubercular movement in Chicago, and began to see the connection between illness and occupation. In 1908 she was one of a handful of doctors asked by the American Association for Labor Legislation to conduct investigations into industrial diseases. She was on her way.

Her study on phosphorus necrosis among matchworkers was brilliant and decisive. Her studies of white lead and lead oxide conclusively demonstrated the prevalence of poisoning in the lead industry. In time she conducted important investigations into radium poisoning among watch dial workers, poisoning in the manufacture of explosives, and the hazards of the pneumatic jackhammer in the copper mines. Her studies demonstrated that American factories had higher morbidity and mortality rates than their European counterparts, and destroyed a commonplace belief in the superiority of American industrial conditions.

Alice Hamilton became a member of every important state and federal commission on occupational diseases and helped arbitrate a thousand disputes among labor, management, and government on the matter of medical safety in industry. She taught industrial medicine at Harvard in the 1920s and, as her prestige and her knowledge kept pace with the years, she continued to give expert testimony on an enormous range of protective labor laws until she was quite old.

Like many women of her generation who were high achievers she was not a feminist. She did not support suffrage, she was actively against the ERA, and she believed that it was either marriage or a career for a women. As Barbara Sicherman writes: "She delighted in her ability to go anywhere and do anything a man could do; she found the dangers -- and her ability to face them without revealing her fear -- exhilarating." Yet she continued to "believe men and women differed in essential temperament, and she once claimed that when she wanted advice on an intellectual problem she took it to a man, but that for wisdom on a personal problem she would always consult a woman."

These are the views of an emotional conservative, and they come as no surprise to the reader of this book. Alice Hamilton emerges from her private writing a woman of intelligence and integrity with an immense and overriding respect for work. She also emerges a woman whose inner life remained a sealed mystery to her even though she lived a hundred years. In 400 pages of letters written mainly to intimates, over a period of 70 years, there is not a trace of sexual longing or imaginative uncertainty to be found. No displaced anguish, no inappropriate desires, no inexplicable confusions. Whenever life threatens to bring her closer to complicated emotional realities (e.g., cousin Allen, a doctor, marrying another doctor who clearly was going to have both work and love, or sister Edith becoming an open lesbian in middle age) the writing becomes more unknowing than ever. The character of these letters is relentlessly public.

It is not hard to see why this would be so. Thousands of 19th-century women who responded as Hamilton did to the "choices" available to women like herself knew little or nothing about their inner lives, and did not wish to know. One became religious or public-spirited, and the diverted energy of a dammed-up spirit life flowed into an artificial integration that was then vigorously insisted upon.

Hamilton herself is understandable enough. Less understandable is Barbara Sicherman, whose writing about Hamilton is as public as Hamilton's is about herself. Repeatedly throughout her narrative, Sicherman writes sentences like "Alice Hamilton knew early she must choose between private and public life," without a word of commentary or speculation to mediate between the stiff closed declaration and the live human being behind it. What did Alice know? How did she know what she knew? And how early is early? Ten? Twelve? Twenty? A sentient woman forgoes physical love throughout a century of life, and there is nothing to be said about this by a late 20th-century biographer? In this volume academic caution and 19th-century inhibition are unfortunately matched. Nevertheless, both letters and narrative form a social document of value and interest, and the twin labor of subject and historian is now well concluded.