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Richards’s research on water quality was even more far-reaching. In 1887 Nichols’s successor put her in charge of implementing an extensive sanitary survey of Massachusetts inland waters, again for the board of health. The two-year study was unprecedented in scope. Richards supervised the collection and analysis of 40,000 water samples from all over the state–representing the water supply for 83 percent of the population. She personally conducted at least part of the analysis on each sample; the entire study involved more than 100,000 analyses. In the process, she developed new laboratory equipment and techniques, meticulously documenting her findings. Instead of merely recording the analysis data, she marked each day’s results on a state map–and noticed a pattern. By plotting the amount of chlorine in the samples geographically, she produced the famous Normal Chlorine Map, an indicator of the extent of man-made pollution in the state. The survey produced her pioneering water purity tables and led to the first water quality standards in the United States. Her biographer, Caroline Hunt, contends that the study was Richards’s greatest contribution to public health.

Bringing Science Home
In 1879, Richards gave a talk in which she explained how she became interested in the practical applications of chemistry. One day, she said, she had been asked, “What good do you expect [your work] will do in the kitchen?” That question haunted her, and convinced her that science should not exist in a vacuum; it should be applied to benefit society.

Richards began with her own home in Jamaica Plain, where she designed renovations to ensure the flow of clean air, carefully analyzed the water quality of the old well under the porch, and upgraded the wastewater plumbing and drainage systems. Her concern about the connection between the environment and human health was so great that instead of giving friends a traditional housewarming gift, she would analyze their home’s water supply and suggest modifications to improve its quality. Richards devoted much of her time and energy to empowering others with such knowledge–especially disenfranchised constituencies like the urban poor, children, and women. One brainchild was the New England Kitchen, a scientific take-out restaurant that opened in Boston in 1890. Its purpose was to feed nutritious and economical food to the poor, to demonstrate cooking methods, and to function as a nutrition laboratory. The menu included pilgrim succotash, pea soup, corn mush, and Indian pudding.

The kitchen didn’t attract as many locals as Richards had hoped: many of the would-be patrons were immigrants and disliked American fare. But it prompted Massachusetts to ask her to open a demonstration kitchen at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The resulting Rumford Kitchen “scientifically fed” 10,000 exposition visitors a nutritionally balanced lunch for 30 cents each (about $6.50 in today’s dollars). Richards’s exhibit included displays about the human body and diet, marking the first attempt to educate the public about nutrition and introduce it to terms like “calories,” “proteids” (protein), and “carbohydrates.”

The New England Kitchen also led to a chance to revamp the lunch program in the Boston public schools. Until 1894, school janitors prepared and served lunches. In view of growing awareness about the importance of nutrition (not to mention cleanliness), the school committee hired the kitchen to provide meals; by the time Richards died, it was serving some 5,000 Boston high-school students daily.

In the late 1890s, Richards began focusing on the nascent field of home economics. Today, the term may conjure up memories of sewing and baking cookies in junior high school. But in the early 20th century, the teaching of home economics represented a major educational reform at a time of great cultural and industrial change. With American households shifting from making to buying such things as bread and clothing, running a home required new skills. Home economists like Richards advocated for the relevant instruction at all levels of the educational system. Grounded in sociology and economics, the field aimed to improve living conditions in the home by educating homemakers about issues like sanitation and nutrition–a cause that was right up Richards’s alley.

One reason Richards decided to channel her energies into home economics was that she had reached a professional crossroads in the early 1890s. She was troubled by the toll industrialization was taking on the environment, evidence of which she discovered by analyzing the local water whenever she traveled (in 1903 she would conclude, “It is hard to find anyplace in the world where the water does not show the effect of human agencies”). To Richards, the home, the natural world, and human health were all interconnected, so she believed that science should be interdisciplinary. In 1892 she gave a talk proposing a new field called “oekology” (ecology), to be grounded in that holistic principle. The speech made quite a splash in the Boston Daily Globe, but it soon became clear that the science establishment dismissed her concept. Her idea ran counter to that era’s trend toward specialization: with many new branches of science–such as limnology and bacteriology–coming into existence, scientists were more interested in focusing on their fields than in forging connections.

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