Distinguished Women of Past and Present

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Ellen Henrietta Swallow Richards


The founder of home economics, Ellen Henrietta Swallow was the first woman admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.A. She was born December 3, 1842 in Dunstable, Massachusetts. As a child, she helped her parents with domestic and farm work. At first, she was educated at home, but later attended Westford Academy for a short while, after her family moved to Westford in 1859. Her family moved again in 1863 to Littleton, Massachusetts, where she helped her father in the store he ran and she taught elementary school.

In 1868, she was accepted to Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York and graduated with a B.S. degree in 1870. She was then accepted at the MIT as a special student in chemistry (i.e. she was not charged tuition, but MIT was not obligated to her either) and graduated in 1873 with her second B.S. degree. That same year, she received an M.S. degree in chemistry from Vassar. She continued her studies at MIT for two more years, but was not awarded the Ph.D. degree, as was later claimed by her husband, because her professors did not want the first Ph.D. degree in chemistry from MIT to be awarded to a woman.

In 1875 she married Professor Robert H. Richards, head of the department of mining engineering at MIT. She started working with her husband on the chemistry of ore analysis and this work led to her being elected in 1879 the first woman member of the American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers.

In 1876 she successfully petitioned the Woman’s Education Association of Boston to contribute funds to open the Woman’s Laboratory at MIT. She worked there as an assistant director under Professor John Ordway. She encouraged other women to enter the scientific field and provided opportunities for their training. Women were taught basic and industrial chemistry, biology and mineralogy. With Ordway's help, some were then able to obtain industrial and government consulting jobs.

Beginning in 1876, she was head of the science section of the Society to Encourage Studies at Home. In 1882, she co-founded the Association of Collegiate Alumnae (later known as the American Association of University Women). In 1884, she started working at MIT's new laboratory of sanitation chemistry as an assistant to Professor William Nichols. This was a salaried faculty appointment. Prior to this, she taught classes without pay. She introduced biology to MIT's curriculum and founded the oceanographic institute, known as Woods Hole. In addition, she tested home furnishings and foods for toxic contaminants, investigated water pollution and designed safe sewage systems.

In 1890, the New England Kitchen opened in Boston under Ellen Richards' guidance. It offered low-cost and nutritious food to working class families and instructed in food preparation. Three years later, she created the Rumford Kitchen at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, which likewise provided inexpensive, but nutritious meals and informed people about nutrition and food preparation. At the time, she was also working as a dietary consultant to hospitals.

Richards lobbied for providing school lunches and for the introduction of courses in domestic science into Boston public schools. In 1899, she organized a summer conference in Lake Placid, New York. Its goal was to define standards for teacher training and certification in the new field of home economics. The attendants of this conference later formed the American Home Economics Association in 1908, and elected Richards as president. In 1910, she started the Journal of Home Economics and she was also named to the council of the National Education Association. She was put in charge of overseeing the teaching of home economics in public schools. That same year, she was awarded an honorary Ph.D. degree by Smith College.

Ellen Richards published more than a dozen books and many articles. Among them are: The Chemistry of Cooking (1882), Home Sanitation: A Manual for Housekeepers (1887), Laboratory Notes on Industrial Water Analysis: A Survey Course for Engineers (1908), and Euthenics: The Science of Controllable Environment (1912).

Ellen Swallow Richards died March 30, 1911 in Boston, Massachusetts. Her grave is in Gardiner, Maine.

Contributed by Danuta Bois, 1997.

1. Her Heritage: A Biographical Encyclopedia of Famous American Women, CD ROM, Pilgrim New Media, Inc., 1994 (http://www.PLGRM.com)
2. American Women's History by Doris Weatherford, Prentice Hall General Reference, 1994
3. The Book of Women's Firsts: Breakthrough Achievements of Almost 1,000 American Women by Phyllis J. Read and Bernard L. Witlieb, Random House, 1992
4. Susan B. Anthony Slept Here. A Guide to American Women's Landmarks by Lynn Sherr and Jurate Kazickas, Random House, 1994

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