By Jaime Seltzer
“The quality of life depends on the ability of society to teach its members how to live in harmony with their environment – defined first as the family, then with the community, then with the world and its resources.” – Ellen H. Richards
Ellen Henrietta Swallow was born in the Boston area in 1842 to a once-great family who had helped colonize the area, but had since fallen on hard times. She had to work at various odd jobs in order to be able to afford school, including teaching, tutoring, and cleaning house. To make matters worse, her mother was ill, and caring for her often put Ellen’s money-raising efforts on hold. Finally, Ellen had enough money to consider enrolling, but she wasn’t sure where she would be welcomed. Then she discovered Vassar, the new college which purported to be to women what Yale and Harvard were to men.
She entered Vassar in 1868 and was admitted directly to her senior year because of her advanced knowledge, working for a time under the astronomer Maria Mitchell. However, she became interested in chemistry when she realized that its study could help ordinary people better their lives. She graduated two years later with her bachelor’s.
She then applied as an assistant to many different chemists, degree in hand; but wherever she went, she was dismissed. She even considered teaching in Argentina and was set to go, but there was a period of civil unrest in the area and her position was eliminated. To Ellen, who had invested years of her life saving up for college and then matriculating, these rejections were incredibly dispiriting.
Like other educated women of her time, Ellen responded by deciding that she would become so awesomely qualified that no one could refuse her. She became the first woman to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or any other school of science in the United States, obtaining a second bachelor’s from them. Interestingly, she was not asked to pay her way at all. Later on, she found out that this was so that the president of the newly-minted college could claim she was not a student, should anybody complain about MIT admitting a lady!
The same year, by re-submitting her thesis and taking a final exam, she obtained her master’s from Vassar, hoping that would help her become yet more employable. She went back to MIT for her doctorate, but MIT refused her admittance. They had an unorthodox reasoning: the fledgling school hadn’t awarded any doctorates in chemistry, and did not want their first to be awarded to a woman.
It was while working at MIT that she met her husband, Dr. Robert Hallowell Richards, who proposed to her in the chemistry laboratory, and was every bit as devoted to his students as she was. Their honeymoon to Nova Scotia was accompanied by Robert’s entire mining engineering class!
In 1876, Richards established the Woman’s Laboratory at MIT, with help from the Woman’s Education Association of Boston. It was the first laboratory in the entire world devoted to encouraging women to pursue the sciences. Over the next seven years, she and her husband contributed $1,000 per year to the operation of the little college-within-a-college for instruction and supplies. Richards ensured even those women who were ill or too poor to afford tuition could attend, even taking young women into her own home if they had no other place to go.
By 1879, Ellen was recognized as an instructor and her courses in chemical analysis, industrial chemistry, mineralogy and applied biology were under her own name; however, she still lectured without pay.
The Women’s Laboratory closed in 1883 once MIT began to award degrees to more women, and stated there was no longer any need for a ‘special track’. That year, MIT opened the laboratory of sanitary chemistry, and Ellen was appointed its instructor.
The Massachusetts State Board of Health had begun to study water pollution in 1872, back when Ellen was an assistant in the chemistry lab at MIT. This study continued up through the time where Ellen herself was in charge of the lab over a decade later. By that time, over 40,000 samples of water had been analyzed, making it by far the largest study that had been attempted on water quality in the United States; and its success was largely attributed to Richards. Of course, in the full swing of the Industrial Revolution and before the advent of the EPA, Ellen and her students found all kinds of horrors lurking in the water, including microorganisms, heavy metals, and factory runoff. Massachusetts became one of the first states to have any kind of water quality standards, and produced the first sewage treatment plant. Because of all her hard work on water quality, Ellen served as the state’s official water analyst for twenty years.
Richards also examined grocery stores for sanitation, publishing the results of her investigations in the first annual report of the Board of Health, Lunacy, and Charity (which had replaced the Board of Health of Massachusetts.)
In the late 1800s, Richards worked with Mary Hinman Abel on how to obtain good nutrition on a low budget; the two women’s work formed the foundation for the first school lunches in Boston. Thereafter, Richards worked to improve the quality of institutional food.
Perhaps Ellen H. Richards’s most significant contribution to society was in the way she conveyed important information about household chemistry to the public. In her very readable books, she introduced housekeepers and homemakers to the chemistry of cooking and cleaning. The importance of such books cannot be overstated: they taught women of the age how to tell if water was good to drink, and introduced the germ theory of disease, which was not understood by the average person at the time; they taught how to disinfect; they taught women how to tell whether the product on the shelf was safe to use. Keep in mind that this was all before the Food and Drug Administration, and no labels with ingredient lists were required as of yet. It was entirely up to the consumer to judge the quality of a product, and to judge what it might or might not contain; and most did not have a laboratory like Richards to help determine that!
It could be argued that Richards is the sole inventor of family and consumer science. Her combination of the ‘womanly arts’ and the hard sciences opened doors for women to study subjects to which they had never before had access. She wrote curricula for colleges and high schools in this new field, edited a journal, and wrote ten books and countless articles on the subject.
Aspen, R. L. (n.d.). Ellen Swallow Richards: 1842-1911 Foremost Female Environmental Leader: Founder of Home Economics. In Ellen Swallow Richards. Retrieved from http://ellenswallowrichards.com/?page_id=478
MacLean, M. (2014, August 3). Ellen Swallow Richards. In Civil War Women. Retrieved from http://civilwarwomenblog.com/ellen-swallow-richards/
Rosen, G. (1974, August). Ellen H. Richards (1842–1911), Sanitary Chemist and Pioneer of Professional Equality for Women in Health Science. Technology Review, 64(8), 816-819. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1775518/
Talbot, H. P. (1911). Ellen Henrietta Richards, M.M., Sc.D: A biographical sketch of her life – Her remarkable career and her many public activities. Technology Review, 13, 365-373. Retrieved from https://libraries.mit.edu/archives/exhibits/esr/esr-biography.html