In 1946 Harriet L. Hardy, physician and industrial toxicologist, identified beryllium as the cause of a chronic respiratory disease. In 1952, she established the National Beryllium Registry, one of the first registries to collect long-term data on a chronic health disorder. She worked with the Atomic Energy Commission, the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union, United Mine Workers, and Coal Workers' Safety Board. Committed to social reform, she hoped science would solve workplace hazards and improve the well being of workers.
Harriet Hardy was born in Arlington, Massachusetts, in 1906, to Horace Dexter Hardy and Harriet Louise Decker. Her father died of pneumonia when she was only 4 years old, and her mother remarried a few years later. In 1918, a ten-month-old half-brother died in the influenza epidemic of that year. Hardy wanted to be a doctor from a very young age, and after graduating from Wellesley College with a bachelor's degree in science, she enrolled at Cornell University Medical School, one of the first coeducational medical schools in the country. Hardy graduated in 1932 and won a competitive residency at Philadelphia General Hospital.
In 1934 Dr. Hardy took a job as school physician at the Northfield Seminary for Girls, a preparatory school in Massachusetts. As well as treating patients she conducted her first endocrinological study, based on a large group of students at the school. In 1935, while still working there, she went into private practice on a part-time basis and worked with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. In September 1938, a hurricane hit Northfield Seminary. A two-ton chimney fell through the roof while 100 students were eating supper. The Connecticut River flooded, blocking access to the hospital. As it was hunting season, many physicians were out of town. Dr. Hardy and her nurse set bones and sewed-up lacerations by lantern light, amid significant damage and loss of life. The natural disaster took its toll on Dr. Hardy and she took an extended leave to recuperate, suffering from exhaustion and depression.
In 1939,after making a good recovery, Dr. Hardy was appointed head of the Department of Health Education at Radcliffe College, working two days a week in the outpatient clinic of Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). Working with Harvard faculty and other staff at the MGH she learned of the Grant Study of the "normal American male" in the Harvard undergraduate population. She extended the study to 100 women students at Radcliffe.
In 1945 Dr. Hardy resigned from Radcliffe to take up a position at the Division of Occupational Hygiene. At age 40, her focus then shifted from students' to workers' health. After her first assignment, studying lung disease in fluorescent light bulb factory workers, she spent two years documenting and arguing the harmfulness of exposure to beryllium. In 1948, she was invited to bring her research and worker protection policies to the Health Division of the Atomic Energy Scientific (and later National) Laboratory in Los Alamos. She spent the year documenting more cases of beryllium poisoning and lecturing on "man-made disease." Alice Hamilton, M.D., the first woman on the faculty at Harvard and a leading authority on occupational illness invited her to help revise her textbook Industrial Toxicology, and after completing her research in California and the work on the book Dr. Hardy returned to the Division of Occupational Hygiene.
In 1949, the fluorescent lamp industry agreed to eliminate beryllium, and Hardy opened a clinic for workers with occupational illnesses, funded by the newly formed National Institutes of Health (NIH). The medical director of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) invited Dr. Hardy to serve as a consultant to the university, and from 1949 to 1970 she directed the Occupational Medicine Service (later, the Environmental Medical Service) which she founded there. It was one of the first programs of its kind in a academic setting.
Hardy traveled widely for research and for pleasure and investigated respiratory disease in factories and mines around the world. In 1958 she was the first woman to be appointed associate clinical professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. Over the next decade she was a well-respected researcher and advocate in the field of occupational health. She retired due to ill health in the early 1970s, but continued to publish and work as a consultant on a number of projects. Her autobiography, Challenging Man-Made Disease, was published in 1983. In 1962 she received the highest honor in occupational medicine, the William S. Knudsen Award, and in 1974 she received the Browning Award from the American Public Health Association.