After graduating in 1873 with a bachelor of science, Swallow labored tirelessly on behalf of women seeking a science education. She persuaded MIT and the Boston-based Women’s Education Association (WEA) to provide space and money, respectively, for the Women’s Laboratory at MIT, which opened in 1876 (see “A Lab of Their Own,” May/June 2006). About 500 women–many of them secondary-school teachers without access to laboratories–studied chemistry under Mrs. Richards (as by then she was known) at the lab. To those who were strapped financially, Richards offered room and board at her Jamaica Plain home in exchange for housework. Ultimately, the laboratory became obsolete; MIT built a new chemistry lab for men and women in 1883.
Richards also taught thousands of women who couldn’t attend MIT. In 1876 she began managing the science section of the Society to Encourage Study at Home, a correspondence school intended to, as the catalogue put it, “induce ladies to form the habit of devoting some part of every day to study of a systematic kind.” Undaunted by the logistical challenge of teaching an inherently hands-on subject by mail, Richards sent her students microscopes, specimens, texts, and lessons. She urged women to examine anything that interested them–plants, food, or water from the well, for example. For some, the experience was life changing. One student wrote, “I have eyes to see what I never saw before.”
Not all Richards’s initiatives to advance women involved teaching. To lend support to women seeking higher education, she helped found the Association of Collegiate Alumnae in 1882. Now known as the American Association of University Women, the organization provided fellowships and worked to raise the standard of women’s scholarship at the college level. And Richards once again enlisted the help of the WEA to bankroll a laboratory that would allow women (and men) to do research in the field of marine biology, then undeveloped in the United States. The Summer Seaside Laboratory opened in the summer of 1881 in Annisquam, MA. Six years later, the facility was moved to Woods Hole, where it remains today.
Ellen Swallow Richards once told someone that she had tried to demonstrate what the average American woman could accomplish in her lifetime. But she was a tough act to follow: a gifted teacher, prolific author, and preëminent scholar all rolled up into one petite, petticoat-clad ball of fire. Driven to serve society, she rued the fact that there were only 24 hours in a day. “I wish I were triplets,” she said to a friend.
First and foremost, Richards was an educator. In 1884, shortly after the Women’s Lab closed, the Institute appointed her instructor in sanitary chemistry, a position she held until her death in 1911. During those 27 years, she taught sanitary chemistry, sanitary engineering, and air, water, and food analysis to countless MIT students, many of whom became leaders in public sanitation in the United States and abroad.
Her writings reached many more people. Richards wrote or coauthored 18 books–from academic texts in sanitary engineering to practical manuals for housewives on the chemistry of cooking and cleaning–and scores of papers and articles (see “The Writings of Richards,”). She felt that a basic knowledge of scientific principles could improve people’s lives. A housewife who knew some simple chemistry could test the purity of household products like cream of tartar or tea if she suspected they had been adulterated. If she understood nutrition, ventilation, and plumbing, she could provide the healthiest possible environment for her family. Richards founded the popular American Kitchen Magazine, which brought science into housewives’ hands, and was the “guiding spirit” behind the scholarly Journal of Home Economics.
Her scientific achievements were remarkable not only for how groundbreaking many of them were but for the diversity of fields she contributed to: air quality, mineralogy, industrial chemistry, food and consumer sciences, and water quality. In the last two areas, her work sparked some of the country’s first public-health standards and regulations. Students from the Women’s Lab helped her conduct research on nutrition, consumer products, and food adulteration, both in the lab at MIT and in her kitchen in Jamaica Plain–the nation’s first consumer-products test lab. At the time, there were no laws regulating the quality of food. In 1878 and 1879, Richards and her students conducted a study for the Massachusetts Board of Health, Lunacy, and Charity on adulteration of staple foods–the first such study in the nation. The results of this and further research were alarming: watered-down milk; samples of cinnamon that consisted entirely of mahogany sawdust; salt and sand in sugar; and sauces with tainted meat, to name a few discoveries. Their findings prompted the state to pass the first of its Food and Drug Acts in 1882.