Ellen Swallow Richards didn’t merely break new ground in a staggering range of scientific fields. MIT’s first alumna also made it her life’s work to apply science for the public good.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Become an Insider to get the story behind the story — and before anyone else.