Ellen Swallow Richards Trailblazer

Ellen Henrietta Swallow Richards

Born: December 3, 1842

Died: March 30, 1911

Spouse: Robert Hallowell Richards

Education: Vassar College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Known for: Being the first woman in America accepted to any school of science and technology and the first American woman to obtain a degree in chemistry

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Ellen Swallow Richards was the founder of home economics and a pioneer in environmental science and engineering

Ellen Henrietta Swallow was born on December 3, 1842 in Dunstable, Massachusetts. Her parents believed that education was important and took care to give their daughter the best education they could afford. She was a good student and she worked for a few years as a teacher and tutor to save money for college.

In 1868, she was accepted to Vassar College and graduated with a bachelor's degree two years later. She tried to find work as an apprentist chemist, but could not find a position. One chemist suggested she try to continue her education. So in 1870 she applied and was accepted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as a "special student" — the first, and at that time only, woman accepted at the university.

MIT Chemistry Staff in the late 1880s

Richards was often the lone woman in a group. Here she is with the MIT chemistry staff in the late 1880s or 1890s. Image originally from the MIT museum, found in a Nautilus article on Ellen Swallow Richards

She graduated with a second bachelor's degree in 1873. That same year, she received her master's degree from Vassar College in Chemistry for a thesis she had written while studying at MIT. In 1875, Swallow married Robert Richards, who was the head of the mining engineering department at MIT. Her work with her husband on the chemistry of ore analysis led to her being the first woman elected to be a member of the American Institute of Mining Engineers (now the American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical, and Petroleum Engineers).

The next year, with the support of her husband and the Woman's Education Association, Richards opened the Women's Laboratory at MIT, where women were taught basic and industrial chemistry, biology, and mineralogy. Many of her students were school teachers who had little training in laboratories or who wanted to learn how to do chemical experiments.

“I hope in a quiet way I am winning a way which others will keep open”

When women began to be accepted as regular students in the early 1880's, the Woman's Laboratory was closed down and Richards was offered an appointment as an instructor at the university's new laboratory of sanitary chemistry.

In 1887, the laboratory undertook the most comprehensive water-quality study ever attempted in the country to that date. At the request of the Massachusetts State Board of Health, Richards and her assistants carefully collected tens of thousands of water samples throughout the state and tested them. With the data, she created a map that identified and predicted areas of pollution. As a result, Massachusetts set the nation's first first water-quality standards and the country's first water treatment plant was built in Lowell, MA. 

Water Laboratory

The Water Laboratory at MIT. The Richards Chlorine Map appears in the upper half of the image.

Ellen Swallow Richards at her desk

Ellen Swallow Richards at her desk in the lab at MIT

Throughout her career Richards introduced several new ideas about home sanitation and pioneered work that would lead to the establishment of the field of home economics. She even conducted experiments in her own home to determine how effecient and effective different tools were for kitchen, laundry, and other household tasks.

Her work at hme and at the laboratory contributed to improvements in many different disciplines ranging from plumbing and wastewater treatment to nutrition to ventilation of industrial spaces.

In 1890, Ellen helped to open the New England Kitchen in Boston. This was a place that offered low-cost and nutritious food to working class families and instructed them in food preparation. Three years later, she created another "kitchen" of the same type called the Rumford Kitchen at the World's Columbian Expo in Chicago.

The intention of the exhibit was to illustrate the present state of knowledge in regard to the composition of materials for human food, the means of making these materials most available for nutrition, and the quantity of each necessary for a working ration.

Richards was always lobbying for providing school lunches and for an introduction of courses in domestic science in public schools in Boston. In 1899, she organized a summer conference to define the standards for teacher training and certification in home economics. The people who attended this conference eventually formed the American Home Economics Association (AHEA) and elected Richards president in 1908. 

Richards was awarded an honorary Ph.D. from Smith College in 1910.  She continued to work as an instructor at MIT until her death on March 30, 1911 in Boston. She was 68.


Photo credits:
Laboratory images found in a memorial calendar for Richards. Online at the MIT Library Archives.

Portrait Frontispiece from The Life of Ellen H. Richards; by Caroline L. Hunt; 1912 (Found on wikipedia).