In the fall of 1876, an unusual experiment began at MIT, prompted in large part by Ellen Swallow Richards, Class of 1873, the Institute’s first female graduate. Richards helped establish a women’s chemistry laboratory in which, she wrote, “the question is to be solved – Have women the mental capacity for scientific work?” During the next seven years, hundreds of women trained at the Women’s Laboratory, ensuring that future generations of women would have a place at the lab bench as well.
Richards had recognized the need for such a facility before finishing her degree. At the time, demand for secondary–school laboratory instruction was growing, but high-school science teachers – many of them women – had little or no experience in laboratory methods. In the winter of 1873, Richards cotaught an advanced chemistry class for women at the Girls’ High School of Boston. More women were also applying for instruction at MIT; but while founder William Barton Rogers had always intended the Institute to be coeducational, it did not have the facilities to accommodate them.
In 1875, Richards brought the matter before the Woman’s Education Association (WEA), a Boston-based organization promoting women’s education. She told the association, “The question comes to us from [women] all over the country, ‘Where can I study the higher departments of chemistry? Where can I obtain instruction in the use of the microscope and spectroscope?’ How many times we have had to answer, ‘There is, as yet, no place.’” Richards had connections with MIT’s chemistry department, and her husband, Robert Richards, Class of 1868, taught mining engineering at the Institute. She believed that MIT would allocate space for a women’s chemistry lab if it had outside funding for equipment. Within months, the WEA raised $2,500 to outfit the lab. MIT agreed to offer space, and the MIT Corporation voted to admit women as special students in chemistry.
The laboratory opened in November 1876 in a brick annex adjacent to the Rogers Building on the old Boston campus. The space consisted of five rooms: a reception room, a weighing room, a chemistry lab, an industrial lab with steam kettles and furnaces, and an optical lab with microscopes, spectroscopes, and other instruments. Richards, the first woman to teach at MIT, provided instruction, and Professor John Ordway supervised the lab – both without compensation. Women could register for one, two, or six days per week during the eight-month school year, at a cost of $45, $80, or $200.
About 500 women studied at the laboratory, including many teachers from academic institutions such as Framingham Normal School, Smith College, and Lake Erie College in Ohio. To Richards’s delight, some were married, with children, “proof of [the lab’s] truly broad and liberal character,” she wrote. Several students went on to complete degrees at MIT, and a handful went to medical school or found work in research or industry.
By the early 1880s, the success of the experiment was clear. Richards reported that “the capability of women to carry through a severe course of scientific education without injury to body or mind is now established.” Moreover, she noted, their femininity was not adversely affected. “Our students have proved that the most severe training does not make women repulsive and does not unfit them for housewifely duties,” she said.
In 1883, when MIT built a new chemistry laboratory for male and female students, the Women’s Lab became obsolete and was closed. “The great result of the work connected with the laboratory has been the gradual overcoming of prejudice so that the doors of the school have opened year by year to [women],” Richards wrote. To ensure that women were accommodated fully, Richards helped raise $8,000 for a women’s reception room on campus. Named for one of her protégées, Margaret Cheney, Class of 1882, the room continues to offer respite for women studying at MIT.