History would vindicate Richards’s belief in the need for an interdisciplinary approach to science; her speech foreshadowed the collaborative, problem-centric mind-set at MIT today. But recognizing that her idea was ahead of its time, the ever-pragmatic Richards instead turned her attention to a movement for which the time was ripe. Many schools and colleges offered some form of home-economics instruction, variously called “housekeeping,” “domestic economics,” or “home science.” There was no consensus, however, on what the subject should encompass or how it should be taught. In 1899, Richards initiated an annual conference in Lake Placid, NY, to discuss topics related to improving the home, including sanitation and hygiene, dietetics, and the cost of living. Over the next decade the group developed standards for teacher training and curricula for public schools, agricultural and extension schools, and colleges. The conferences culminated in the formation of the American Home Economics Association in 1908, with Richards as president.
The 20th-century home-economics movement not only sowed the seeds for educating women but also created professional avenues for them in government and industry, says historian Carolyn M. Goldstein, who is writing a book on the subject. Women could, for example, conduct nutrition research and develop consumer products such as appliances, utensils, textiles, and foods. “Richards laid the groundwork for that,” says Goldstein, “both in terms of modeling the career [of a female scientist] and articulating an idea for a whole new field in which women could develop themselves and contribute to society.”
Even in her final years, Richards hardly slowed down. She consulted for some 200 organizations and continued to teach, research, travel, and write prodigiously. Despite a worsening shortness of breath, she persisted in climbing three long flights of stairs to reach her MIT office, refusing to take the elevator. But her ailing heart caught up with her on March 30, 1911. Fittingly, on the day her funeral was reported in the newspapers, so too was the news that five companies had been indicted for violating the new food and drug laws.
Richards would probably have wished to do more, but even she might concede, on balance, that her life had been “useful.” She often closed her letters with two simple words: “Keep thinking.” And in her extraordinary career, she inspired countless other people–women and men from all walks of life–to do just that.
For more on Ellen Swallow Richards, see AMIT’s exhibit “125 Years of MIT Women.”
View the Association of MIT Alumnae’s bibliography of Ellen Swallow Richards.