“We never can tell how our lives may work to the account of the general good, and we are not wise enough to know if we have fulfilled our mission or not.”
—Ellen Swallow Richards
Born this day in 1842: Ellen Swallow Richards (1842–1911), first woman to study science at MIT, promoter of science education for women, and pioneer in the fields of urban and industrial sanitation, food safety, water purity, ecology, and many other environmental sciences
Richards was born Ellen Henrietta Swallow in Dunstable, Massachusetts. At age 25 she enrolled in Vassar College, where she studied under Maria Mitchell. She graduate in 1870 with a bachelor’s degree. She tried to get a job as an industrial chemist, but no one would hire her. So instead she began studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a “special student”—special because no institute of science had ever accepted a woman as a student. (MIT did not accept tuition from her, not because of her financial situation, but in order, as she later learned, that the president “could say I was not a student, should any of the trustees or students make a fuss about my presence. Had I realized upon what basis I was taken, I would not have gone.”)
In 1873 she earned an MS from Vassar and BS from MIT. She remained at MIT, completing the work necessary to earn a PhD in chemistry. MIT did not award her the degree because—say it with me, people—she was a woman. Hers would have been the first PhD in chemistry awarded by MIT.
Richards had a talent for a lot of science. There seemed to be no science she could not do. She established a marine biology laboratory in Hyannis, Massachusetts (which evolved into today’s Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution); she designed, along with William Ripley Nichols, the first water purity tests; and she isolated vanadium, a rare mineral. She was the first woman elected to the American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers.
In 1876 she founded the Women’s Laboratory at MIT in order to train women in science. At the time, many people opposed women in the sciences because they believed the rigors of learning would ruin their health. Richards argued that the opposite was true: that the underutilization of women’s talents was detrimental to their health. She taught chemical analysis, industrial chemistry, mineralogy, and applied biology. She was officially recognized as an assistant instructor in 1879, but received no pay. In 1883 the lab close when MIT officially opened its doors to women.
The following year Richards was allowed to join the faculty as an instructor in the newly minted Sanitary Chemistry lab, a position she would hold until her death. Richards had a keen interest in sanitation, in both domestic and urban environments. Her accomplishements—at MIT, for the state of Massachusetts, and for private industry—are too numerous to mention in this small space. Among the most notable, however, are the food adulteration investigations and the the water quality survey that she undertook for the Massachusetts State Board of Health. The water-quality analysis led to the first water-quality standards in the nation and the first modern municpal sewage treatment plant. She was also very interested in the role women could play in improving health by making sure their homes were hygienic. She applied scientific principles to home sanitation, nutrition, food purity, clothing, efficiency, and construction, creating the field of home economics. In fact, she pushed back against the eugenics movement with what she called “euthenics”—the idea that human intelligence and health could be improved via an improved environment.
She transformed her home in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston into living laboratory, applying her principles of ecology and home economics. She changed windows, removed lead pipes, and improved ventilation to create a healthier environment. Today it is a National Historic Landmark.
Richards authored 18 books including The Chemistry of Cooking and Cleaning: A Manual for Housekeepers (1882), Food Materials and Their Adulterations (1886), Air, Water, and Food from a Sanitary Standpoint (a classic text she wrote with A. G. Woodman, 1900), and Sanitation in Daily Life (1907).
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