Ellen Henrietta Swallow was born on December 3, 1842 in Dunstable, Massachusetts. In 1868, she was accepted to Vassar College and graduated with her bachelor's degree two years later. She was then accepted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as a "special student" and graduated with her second bachelor's degree in 1873. Also in 1873, she received her master's degree from Vassar College in Chemistry.
After getting her master's, she continued her studies at MIT for two more years. She did not get her Ph.D. because the professors at MIT did not want the first Ph.D. in Chemistry from MIT to go to a woman. In 1875, Ellen 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 and Metallurgical Engineering.
The next year, she opened the Women's Laboratory at MIT, where women were taught basic and industrial chemistry, biology, and mineralogy. Also in 1876, she became the head of the science section of the Society to Encourage Studies at Home. 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. Ellen 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 Ellen president in 1908.
Two years after becoming president of the AHEA, Ellen started the Journal of Home Economics. She was awarded an honorary Ph.D. from Smith College in 1910 also. Ellen Richards died on March 30, 1911 in Boston. She was 68.
Photo taken from the Bain Collection at the US Library of Congress (LC-B2- 3895-10 [P&P]).