Ellen Swallow Richards
As the first woman accepted to an American scientific school, Ellen Swallow Richards was a chemist, ecologist, professor, and advocate for the continuing education of women.
At Vassar College she studied chemistry, earning her degree in 1870. But as a female scientist she was unable to find work as an industrial chemist. Accepted at MIT as a “special student” she earned a second bachelor’s degree but wasn’t allowed to earn a doctorate as the school would not award a PhD to a woman. She was offered a position as a lab assistant at MIT after her graduation, making her the first female instructor at the school where she would teach in various positions, including some without an official title or pay, until her death in 1911.
Her research while working at MIT encompassed many fields including air and water quality, mineralogy, home sanitation, and nutrition. Testing the local waters around Boston that served as drinking water for the area’s populations she analyzed 40,000 samples and her findings led to Massachusetts establishing the first water-quality standard in America and the first modern sewage treatment plant. Recognized worldwide for her analysis of minerals she was the first female member of the American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers.
In her book The Cost of Shelter, written in 1905, she coined the term euthenics and defined it as the science of better living for the purpose of securing efficient human beings. As the keepers of the home, Richards felt that it was necessary for women to understand the science behind keeping a sanitary and safe home and laid the groundwork for would become home economics.
In 1890 she co-founded the New England Kitchen of Boston to experiment with ways to prepare the most inexpensive, tasty, and nutritious foods. This program would go on to run the first school nutrition program in the nation and served at the example for other schools wanting to offer food programs.
Richards was the author of seventeen books, numerous articles and creator of three exhibitions on home economics for world fairs.
Written by Angela Goad