Richards, Ellen H.

views updated

Ellen H. Richards

Born December 3, 1842
Dunstable, Massachusetts

Died March 30, 1911
Boston, Massachusetts

Chemist, educator, and founder of the discipline of home economics

"I hope in a quiet way I am winning a way which others will keep open. Perhaps the fact that I am not a Radical or a believer in the all powerful ballot for women to right her wrongs and that I do not scorn womanly duties, but claim it as a privilege to clean up and sort of supervise the room and sew things, etc., is winning me stronger allies than anything else."

The first woman admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Ellen Richards was a chemist and the founder of the discipline of home economics, now often called family and consumer sciences. In addition to being a student pioneer at MIT (she was the first American woman to earn a bachelor of chemistry degree) and then as a professor, she helped break barriers and opened more opportunities for women in science professions. In addition to creating methods for analyzing air and water quality, food values, and consumer products, Richards publicized practical ways for Americans to use elements of science to improve their daily lives.

Varied interests and experiences

Born Ellen Henrietta Swallow on December 3, 1842, on the family farm in Dunstable, Massachusetts, Richards was the only child of Peter Swallow and Fanny Gould Taylor. Her parents met while attending New Ipswich Academy in New Hampshire, where they were training to be teachers. Both parents taught, but Peter Swallow also spent time farming. Richards was educated at home and helped with the farm work and housekeeping from an early age. When she was thirteen, Richards won a sewing award at a local fair for an embroidered handkerchief and a baking award for the best loaf of bread.

When the family moved to Westford, Massachusetts, in 1859, Richards attended Westford Massachusetts Academy, where she studied mathematics, French, and Latin. She worked at the village store her father had purchased and took odd jobs tutoring, housecleaning, cooking, and nursing to help her earn enough money to continue her education. Richards graduated from the academy in 1863.

Later that year, the family moved to nearby Littleton, Massachusetts. Richards spent the next five years waiting for an opportunity to attend college. At the time, no colleges in New England were open to women other than Vassar College, a new women's school in Poughkeepsie, New York, that had only barely begun building a reputation. Frustrated by the seeming impossibility of realizing her goals, and spending long hours at home caring for her ill mother, Richards experienced a period of poor health and deep depression.

Opportunity comes

Finally, at the age of twenty-five in 1868, Richards entered Vassar College. She had had only four years of formal education, yet Richards excelled at Vassar and completed a four-year program in two years. Her interest in science was encouraged by Maria Mitchell (1818–1889), America's first female professor of astronomy and the most significant American woman scientist of the nineteenth century. Another professor, Charles A. Farrar, influenced Richards to pursue studies in chemistry and impressed on her the idea of applied science—that science should be used to help solve everyday, practical problems.

After graduating from Vassar in 1870, Richards was admitted to study at MIT. Up to that point, women had not been admitted to MIT. Viewed as an "experiment," Richards intended to succeed, but she learned later that there was a hidden reason why she had been accepted as a "special student":

Maria Mitchell

The first famous American woman scientist, Maria Mitchell, made her mark by discovering a comet in 1847 and by opening opportunities to other women in science. As a professor at Vassar College beginning in 1865, she profoundly influenced several young women who became accomplished in their fields, including astronomer Mary Watson Whitney (1847–1921), psychologist Christine Ladd-Franklin (1847–1930), and chemist Ellen Richards, among others.

Born in 1818 on Nantucket Island in Massachusetts, Mitchell was the third of ten children of William and Lydia (Coleman) Mitchell. Her mother was a librarian and her father was a school teacher, bank officer, and amateur astronomer. Mitchell attended private elementary schools from the age of four. By the age of twelve, she was assisting her father with astronomical observations. He taught her to calculate the positions and orbits of celestial bodies. Through her father's connections, she became acquainted with astronomers at the Harvard College Observatory.

On October 1, 1847, the twenty-nine-year-old Mitchell sighted a new comet and was able to calculate its position. With her discovery she became a popular symbol for the professional advancement of women scientists. Louis Agassiz (1807–1873), a renowned biologist and educator, nominated Mitchell for membership in the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 1850.

When Matthew Vassar (1792–1868) decided to establish a college for women, he wanted it to have an excellent science program. For the astronomy program, which included an observatory, he looked to Mitchell as the director. Mitchell became one of the first faculty members, directing the observatory and introducing young women to the science of observational astronomy. The Women's Educational Association of Boston raised money to ensure Mitchell had one of the best telescopes in the country. Determined to create graduate educational and professional opportunities for women, Mitchell served as a teacher and advisor.

In 1868, Mitchell made the first daily photographic series of sun spots. She recognized that these spots were not clouds above the surface of the sun, as many astronomers believed. She also studied binary, or double, stars and published her observations of Jupiter and Saturn and their satellites. She wrote popular science articles and edited the astronomy section of the popular magazine Scientific American. She helped establish the Association for the Advancement of Women, serving as president for two years. At the time of her death in 1889, she was chairing the Association for the Advancement of Women's Committee on Science and still directing the Vassar Observatory.

If administrators or students complained about her, the president of MIT could simply reply that Richards was not a regular student. "Had I realized upon what basis I was taken, I would not have gone," Richards remarked later. But she did succeed, becoming in 1873 the first woman to earn a bachelor of chemistry degree in America. That same year, she submitted a thesis on the presence in iron ore of the chemical element vanadium; her findings resulted in her receiving a masters of arts degree from Vassar.

Richards made a request to begin studying for her doctorate at MIT, but she was rejected—some say because MIT did not want a woman to be the first student to receive a graduate degree in chemistry. Soon after, MIT administrators voted formally against admitting female students. Richards worked as an assistant to MIT professor William R. Nichols, a specialist in water analysis. In 1875, funds to establish a women's laboratory at MIT were secured, and the laboratory opened the following year under the direction of Professor John Ordway, with Richards as his assistant. The Women's Education Association provided money for the laboratory and Richards personally donated $1,000 annually for the seven years of the laboratory's existence. The laboratory was fully operational in 1878, when MIT finally voted to admit female students.

Meanwhile, Richards married Professor Robert Hallowell Richards (1844–1945) on June 4, 1875. He was developing metallurgical and mining engineering laboratories. Professor Richards proposed to her in a chemistry laboratory shortly after she received her MIT degree in 1873. Ellen Richards acted as her husband's chemist on a project where he experimented with methods of concentrating copper ores. At MIT, Ellen Richards provided her students with individual attention, especially since most female students had been restricted from learning laboratory techniques. She also served as an unpaid advisor to female students.

Richards, then, by the force of her success and example, had helped open the doors of academia to women, especially in the sciences. Denied an opportunity to pursue a doctorate, she instead pursued her interests in science, working on important studies and experiments and mentoring a new generation of female students. Her home and laboratory were always open to her students.

More firsts and honors

During the 1880s, Richards became more active in finding practical uses for the results of her laboratory experiments. She published a manual, The Chemistry of Cooking and Cleaning (1882), about positive and harmful chemicals in foods and cleaning materials, and a more specific examination of chemicals and food, Food Materials and Their Adulterations (1885). When MIT established a chemical laboratory to study problems in sanitation in 1885, Richards was named as assistant, becoming the nation's first female industrial chemist. Her first project was a two-year survey of the ecology of inland waters in Massachusetts. The water survey work and her involvement with environmental chemistry were significant contributions to the new science of ecology. Meanwhile, she taught on the techniques for air, water, and sewage analysis and lobbied leading scientists to recognize a discipline she called "human ecology." The science was recognized a decade later as "home economics."

Richards continued to champion efforts to increase educational opportunities for women. She was a founding member of the Association of Collegiate Alumnae, which later changed its name to the American Association of University Women. She organized a science section for the Society to encourage Studies at Home, a correspondence school (where lessons are mailed to one's home) founded in 1887 by Anna Ticknor. Richards herself benefitted from the correspondence school: As she provided lessons and advice, her correspondences with students provided her insight into daily life problems faced by women in the home. Some of the problems were beyond science, including manners, dress, food preparation, and exercise.

In response to the lack of formal preparation for homemaking, Richards established a series of classes in housekeeping at the Women's Educational and Industrial Union in Boston, Massachusetts, in the early 1890s. The Union was contacted by the Boston School Committee in 1894 to provide information on healthy lunches for school-children. Richards was consulted by other school systems, as well as other institutions, for information regarding food and nutrition. In 1893, Richards ran a kitchen as a featured exhibit in the Chicago World's Fair. Detailed information about the nutritional values of different foods was among the information she began making more readily available to help people live healthy lives. At the exhibit, the cooking area was open to the public. Exhibit-goers could order meals for thirty cents; they received a receipt that included food values—the amount of protein, fat, carbohydrates, and calories in the meal they were eating. Over one hundred years later, such receipts were used again in the United States as the American public became more health conscious.

In 1899, she organized and chaired a summer conference in Lake Placid, New York, where the profession of home economics was established. Conference participants explored methods for applying science, sociology, economics, and other useful disciplines to the home and developed courses for schools and colleges. According to Richards, every person needed to be a kind of sanitation engineer in order for society to overcome problems of waste and unhealthy living. Home economics classes were soon instituted in high schools across the country.

During the first decade of the twentieth century, Richards wrote pamphlets for the U.S. Department of Agriculture on nutrition and food chemistry that were made freely available to the public. In 1908, the American Home Economics Association was formed, with Richards elected as its first president, a position she held until her retirement in 1910. During this time, she helped found and finance the Journal of Home Economics. In addition, Richards worked as a consultant, lecturer, and author of books and articles.

In 1910, the National Education Association appointed Richards to supervise the teaching of home economics in public schools. She was awarded an honorary doctorate from Smith College that same year. Four days before her death in 1911, Richards spoke before the Baptist Society Union and finished writing the keynote address (the main speech at a conference) for the first World Congress on Technology. Richards died at her Boston home on March 30, 1911. Numerous home economics schools and clubs, as well as scholarships and fellowships, are named in her honor.

For More Information


Clarke, Robert. Ellen Swallow: The Woman Who Founded Ecology. Chicago: Follett, 1973.

Douty, Esther Morris. America's First Woman Chemist, Ellen Richards. New York: Messner, 1961.

Hunt, Caroline Louisa. The Life of Ellen H. Richards, 1842–1911. Washington, DC: American Home Economics Association, 1980.

Vare, Ethlie Ann. Adventurous Spirit: A Story about Ellen Swallow Richards. Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Books, 1992.

Web Sites

"Chemical Achievers: Ellen Swallow Richards." Chemical Heritage Foundation. (accessed on June 23, 2004).

"Ellen Swallow Richards." National Women's Hall of Fame. (accessed on June 23, 2004).

"MIT Institute Archives & Special Collections: Ellen Swallow Richards." Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (accessed on June 23, 2004).

About this article

Richards, Ellen H.

Updated About content Print Article