Shortly after Ellen Henrietta Swallow married MIT mining professor Robert Hallowell Richards (Class of 1868) in June 1875, the couple set off for a honeymoon in Nova Scotia. They had fallen in love when Ellen was a chemistry student at the Institute, and after she graduated in 1873, Robert proposed to her in the laboratory. Upon their return from Canada, the newlyweds–Ellen still wearing a short (above the heel!) skirt and high boots–bumped into some friends in Boston and thoroughly shocked them. The happy couple revealed that they had spent their entire honeymoon touring mines and collecting ore samples–with dozens of Professor Richards’s mining-engineering students in tow.
Ellen Swallow Richards is perhaps best known as MIT’s first female graduate and instructor, but launching coeducation at the Institute is merely the first in a long list of her pioneering feats. The breadth and depth of her career are astounding; a 1910 tribute in La Follette’s Weekly Magazine professed that “when one attempts to tell of the enterprises, apart from her formal teaching, of which Mrs. Richards has been a part or the whole, he is lost in a bewildering maze.” Authors and scholars have called her the founder of ecology, the first female environmental engineer, and the founder of home economics. Richards opened the first laboratory for women, created the world’s first water purity tables, developed the world standard for evaporation tests on volatile oils, conducted the first consumer-product tests, and discovered a new method to determine the amount of nickel in ore. And that’s just the short list of her accomplishments. In a nod to Richards’s remarkable knowledge and interests, her sister-in-law called her “Ellencyclopedia.”
Given all that she accomplished in her 68 years, it’s no surprise that Richards’s honeymoon doubled as a geology field trip. As a student at Vassar (from which she graduated before attending MIT) she didn’t waste a minute: she earned a reputation for knitting as she climbed the five flights of stairs to her dorm room, and for reading as she walked to class. She loved science, particularly astronomy and chemistry, and took every science class Vassar offered except one. Although she excelled in astronomy (she even found star clusters her teacher couldn’t identify) and called the telescope “an entrancing instrument,” she pursued chemistry because its potential practical applications appealed to what she would later recognize as her inclination toward social service.
That inclination would grow into a passion. At 23, she wrote to her cousin, “Pray for me, dear Annie, that my life may not be entirely in vain, that I may be of some use in this sinful world.” Her life would be useful indeed, as she applied her scientific expertise to a dizzying array of public-service initiatives that would make science education accessible to women, improve public health and the environment, and promote health and efficiency in the home.
On her last day at Vassar, in June 1870, Ellen Swallow wrote a prophetic letter to her parents in which she declared, “My life is to be one of active fighting.” She wasn’t sure what she would do next, since few professions other than teaching were open to women. But Swallow did know that she longed to deepen her knowledge of chemistry, and that she wanted to help expand women’s boundaries. Before she could open doors for others, however, she had to pry them ajar for herself.
Her options were limited. Science schools admitted only men at that time, and she couldn’t learn any more at the few colleges then open to women than she already had at Vassar. Four months after graduation, Swallow wrote to a Boston chemical company asking if it would take her on as an apprentice. The company declined and recommended that she try the new Institute of Technology in Boston. Although MIT president J. D. Runkle wrote to her that allowing women at the Institute was “a consummation devoutly to be wished,” some on the faculty weren’t so sure. But after discussing her application, they recommended her acceptance to the Corporation, which decided in December to offer her free admission as a special student of chemistry. As she would be the first woman to infiltrate the Institute, her admission was couched as an experiment; her tuition was waived, she later learned, so Runkle could say that she wasn’t a student if any trustees or students objected. It also freed MIT from any obligation should the experiment fail.
Determined to succeed, Swallow eagerly learned as much as she could about chemistry, physics, and mineralogy–all the while being careful to “roil no waters,” as she put it. “I hope in a quiet way I am winning a way which others will keep open,” she wrote shortly after her arrival in January of 1871. She kept the lab clean and mended professors’ suspenders in an effort to be “useful,” and to show that she didn’t reject woman’s sphere. Soon she won over even the most skeptical professor, William Ripley Nichols, with her careful lab work, exceptional intelligence, and humble, unthreatening manner. In 1872 Nichols, who had not believed in women’s education, selected her to conduct a groundbreaking survey of Massachusetts waters; her work on the project made her an internationally recognized water scientist while still a student.