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Ellen Swallow Richards and her female students
Ellen Swallow Richards

Industrial and environmental chemist Ellen Swallow Richards was a pioneer in sanitary engineering and domestic science.

The first American woman with a chemistry degree

Ellen Henrietta Swallow was born on 3 December 1842 in Dunstable, Massachusetts, to Peter Swallow and Fanny Gould Taylor. Her parents, both former teachers, taught her at home until, at the age of 17 years, she joined Westford Academy, where she studied mathematics, composition, Latin, French and German, graduating in 1862. 

Ellen Swallow Richards

After a brief spell as a school teacher following a debilitating period of ill health, Ellen joined Vassar College as a special student in 1868 and was promoted to the senior class a year later. Here she was greatly influenced by Prof Charles S Farrar, head of the Department of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, who believed that science should be applied to everyday household situations. She was also inspired by Maria Mitchell, professor of astronomy and an activist for the advancement of women in science. Ellen graduated from Vassar College with a Bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1870 – the first American woman to do so. 

As a woman, Ellen struggled to find work as an industrial chemist, but she applied to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) at the suggestion of a prospective employer. After much discussion, the faculty decided to admit Ellen as a special student in chemistry in 1870 – another first for a woman – in order to determine women’s ability in the sciences. At MIT, Ellen studied chemistry under Prof William R Nichols, an authority on sanitation, particularly water purification. When Prof Robert Hallowell Richards, chairman of the Mine Engineering Department at MIT, realised that she could easily read the foreign-language papers so common at that time, he enlisted her help and they worked closely together. She was consequently elected to membership in the American Institute of Mining Engineers, one of only two women to be recognised in this way. In 1873, Ellen received her BSc degree from MIT, as well as a Master of Arts degree from Vassar College. Upon graduation, Prof Nichols offered her a position as a laboratory assistant in the chemistry laboratory at MIT, so she continued her studies. She did however, miss out on MIT’s first doctoral degree, which the institute refused to award to a woman. 

A leader in her field

Ellen Swallow Richards

Ellen was a consulting chemist for the Massachusetts State Board of Health from 1872 to 1875, when she married Prof Richards. Married women then were expected to leave education and employment, but her new husband supported her continued association with MIT, where she volunteered and contributed annual grants to create programmes for female students. The couple set up a laboratory in their home in the Jamaica Plain neighbourhood of Boston, Massachusetts, to develop their theories on home efficiency. Ellen became a leader in this field, conceiving and directing the Lake Placid Conference on Home Economics, developing standards for training professionals and serving as the first president of the American Home Economics Association, whose Journal of Health Economics she founded and funded. 

Over the years, Ellen worked in a variety of roles, including: volunteer assistant instructor in chemical analysis, industrial chemistry, mineralogy, and applied biology; the first female instructor in sanitary chemistry at MIT; instructor in sanitary chemistry at Lawrence Experiment Station (a position she held until her death); and the Commonwealth’s official water analyst. Her work in a landmark survey of samples from inland bodies of water in Massachusetts led to the development of the first water-quality standards and municipal sewage-treatment plant in the US. 

Ellen published numerous books on her favoured interests, including The chemistry of cooking and cleaning: a manual for housekeepers; Food materials and their adulteration and Air, water, and food from a sanitary standpoint (with AG Woodman).

Paving the way for women in science

Ellen Swallow Richards with her male colleagues

Ellen also worked hard to advocate for the education of women and the role of women in science. She obtained funding from the Woman's Education Association of Boston for equipment and books to be used at a new women's laboratory at MIT, and she developed a science department for the Society to Encourage Studies at Home. In 1882, along with Marion Talbot, she founded the Association of Collegiate Alumnae, which later became the American Association of University Women. 

Ellen died of heart disease on 30 March 1911, aged 68 years, just months after Smith College conferred on her the honorary degree Doctor of Science. Her influence is still recognised today, as she was included in the American National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993 and was ranked eighth in the 2011 top 150 innovators arising from MIT, based on her work to improve diet and water quality. To this day, the Ellen Swallow Richards Professorship at MIT, set up on the 100th anniversary of her graduation from the institute, recognises distinguished female members of the faculty. 

Words by Sarah-Jane Cousins
Images courtesy of MIT Museum
Published June 2015

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