Richards, Ellen Swallow (1842–1911)

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated

Richards, Ellen Swallow (1842–1911)

American chemist, founder of the American domestic-science movement, food-reform advocate, and early environmentalist who was the first woman student and faculty member at MIT. Name variations: Ellen Swallow; Ellen Henrietta Richards. Born Ellen Henrietta Swallow in Dunstable, Massachusetts, on December 3, 1842; died of heart disease at her Boston home on March 30, 1911; only child of Mary (Taylor) Swallow and Peter Swallow (a farmer); graduated from Vassar, 1870; awarded science degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), 1873; married Robert Hallowell Richards, in 1875; no children.

Was the first woman to obtain a science degree from MIT (1873); began women's classes in Women's Laboratory, MIT (1876); published The Chemistry of Cooking and Cleaning (1882); was an instructor in sanitary chemistry, MIT (1884–1911); created the New England Kitchen (1890); organized and was elected first president of the American Home Economics Association (1908); published Euthenics (1910).

Many middle-class American women in the late 19th century complained that they had no adequate goals in their lives. Strongly encouraged by social convention to marry and bear children, to find fulfillment in their homes, they said it was not enough. Some found the remedy in social reform and settlement house work, helping their less fortunate neighbors and gaining a sense of vocation. Others joined the Women's Christian Temperance Union, and a daring minority agitated for votes for women. Ellen Richards, founder of the American domestic-science movement and a public-health crusader, took a path which was both progressive and conservative. Her aim was not so much to take women out into the wider world but to bring one aspect of that world, science, into every home.

She was born Ellen Henrietta Swallow in Dunstable, Massachusetts, on December 3, 1842, the only child of Mary Taylor Swallow and Peter Swallow, both farmers. She grew up frail but soon developed a strong will and a range of intellectual interests. Educated at home for the first 16 years by parents who served as her schoolteachers, Richards also learned the domestic arts from her mother, including baking and embroidery. The family became shopkeepers, and Ellen showed a good head for business and organization. In 1864, aged 22, she became a local schoolteacher, then moved to Worcester, Massachusetts, to enjoy several years as an independent breadwinner. Several men courted her but she resisted their advances, after discovering that many married women suffered miserable, constricted lives. She wrote to a cousin that she had no wish to marry or bear children. Recalled to her parents because of her mother's illness, Richards endured two years of sickness and depression but shook herself out of it when she learned of the new Vassar College for women, recently founded in upstate New York. She resolved to enroll there and used her savings in beginning a more formal education. When her funds were exhausted, she tutored less gifted women and paid her way through college, making a favorable impression on her professors.

Graduating from Vassar in 1870 with a distinguished record, especially in the sciences, Richards then applied for graduate study in chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She was admitted as a "special student," becoming the first woman to study there, and was excused from payment of fees. Richards tried to reassure her professors that she was no feminist radical by volunteering to sew buttons for the men, sweep the laboratory floors, and in other ways make symbolic gestures of submission to male power. "Prof. A. accords me his sanction when I sew up his papers or tie up a sore finger, etc.," she wrote of her ingratiating efforts. "Last night Prof. B. found me useful to mend his suspenders, which had come to grief, much to the amusement of young Mr. C. I try to keep all sorts of such things as needles, thread, pins, scissors, etc. around…. They are getting to come to me for anything they want and they almost always find it."

In 1873, Richards became the first women science graduate of MIT; she then persuaded the institute to let her use some vacant campus buildings to set up a laboratory for a Women's Education Association class in chemistry, which she taught, unpaid. The women in her classes learned "Household chemistry," studying the chemical makeup of domestic food products and learning how to trace unwanted additives in foods. In those days, before the passage of any Pure Food and Drug laws (the first came in 1906), this was a worthwhile and necessary job—adulterated foods and milk were a common hazard of American city life. Richards emphasized not only the added safety but also the dignity of being a domestic scientist: "The woman who boils potatoes year after year, with no thought of how or why, is a drudge, but the cook who can compute the calories of heat which a potato of given weight will yield is no drudge." She was also at work as assistant to MIT's Professor William Nichols who had been commissioned to survey the purity of the state's water supply. He too found her an excellent helper and a fine scientist—together they drew up the world's first diagrammatic map of an area's naturally occurring chlorine content in water.

Richards … ran her own home as if it were an extension of the Women's Laboratory, and conducted regular tests on the products and technologies introduced into her housekeeping. She called her house … the 'Center for Right Living' and hoped it would exemplify the way in which the highest scientific standards could enhance daily life if they were applied to eating, sleeping, breathing, house construction, house-cleaning, and home decoration.

—Laura Shapiro

Richards contributed more than $1,000 each year to the Women's Laboratory, until MIT finally agreed to admit women as ordinary students in 1884. Despite her pioneering in the field, she was not an advocate for equal educational opportunity for women. She feared that if large numbers of women were admitted most would fail their courses, and provide ammunition to men who opposed any women's higher education. Her policy, pursued after 1891 in the Association of Collegiate Alumnae (later the American Association of University Women), which she helped found, was to educate small numbers of women to a high intellectual standard rather than large numbers to a lower standard. One of her teachers and admirers at MIT was a professor of geology and mining, Robert Hallowell Richards. She translated articles from German periodicals for him and did several experiments with a care and confidence which impressed him, and for a time seemed intent on a career in mineralogy. Her thesis was a study of the element Vanadium; on the strength of it, Vassar gave her an honorary M.A. She continued to write papers on minerals, became the only female member of the 4,000-member American Institute of Mining and Mineralogical Engineers in 1879, and wrote a textbook, First Lessons in Minerals, in 1882.

In 1875, Ellen Swallow married Robert Richards, and they moved to the suburb of Jamaica Plain, four miles from MIT. In the first years of their marriage, they traveled widely, gathering geological specimens. They honeymooned in the mines of Nova Scotia, and later crossed most of Europe, the Americas, even the North Pole, on behalf of their work. They then renovated their home, modifying the water and sewage system, redesigning the windows, heating, and air flow, and trying to turn it into the ideal safe, hygienic home, which their hundreds of visitors could use as a model for their own. The couple appears to have been ideally suited to one another—each helped the other's career as far as possible.

Nearby at the "Center for Right Living," a laboratory, some of her women students tested food products for adulterative elements. They discovered, for example, that a product sold as "cinnamon" was often a blend of sawdust, mustard, and starch. Ellen Richards (she always used her married name) became, in effect, an early consumer advocate, gaining influential legislators' support, warning other women against inferior products in magazine articles, and pressuring fraudulent manufacturers and wholesalers to reform their ways. She lectured widely on her discoveries across the nation and began to gain a respectable reputation throughout the states. After teaching at MIT unpaid for 12 years, she was finally given a paid faculty position there in 1886, as instructor in "Sanitary Chemistry," but was never awarded the coveted Ph.D. degree. (Smith College gave her an honorary doctorate in 1910.) In a Boston speech of 1892, she introduced the principle of ecology into America. Coined by Ernst Haeckel, a German evolutionary biologist, it meant the study of human interactions with the environment, and nicely fitted Richards' own interdisciplinary work in nutrition, sanitation, mineralogy, and chemistry.

Unlike the radical suffragists of her era, Richards still believed that a woman's place was in the home, but in her eyes a housewife should be a domestic "scientist," albeit a scientist who still knew how to provide a soothing shelter for

her husband and children. She argued for extensive study in the domestic arts, so that women could recover the lost knowledge which their foresisters had possessed (such as spinning, weaving, soap and candlemaking) before industrialization and urbanization presented packaged alternatives to the traditional methods. Among the new types of knowledge all women ought to acquire, she said, were plumbing, construction, an understanding of infections and bacteria, principles of nutrition, and nursing. They should learn to be good cooks, even if they could afford servants, and should know how to make everything in their houses hygienically clean. To develop this kind of outlook, education would have to "awaken a spirit of investigation in our girls as it is often awakened in our boys" and would have to show girls that "science has a very close relation to everyday life."

She became an active member of the Society to Encourage Study at Home, which had been founded in 1873 and was, in effect, the first correspondence-course university for women. Her task was to design and supervise its science curriculum, which soon became its second most popular offering (after history). Richards lived in an era when new machines were a source of acute excitement for Americans, but characteristically she believed women should not merely use them but learn exactly how they worked. Her teaching, while theoretically sound, had strong vocational and practical goals, too. Correspondence with students brought her into contact with many discouraged women. She wrote them encouraging letters and sent them copies of her book Health, a compendium of scientific and common-sense ideas for self-preservation.

Her principles were presented more systematically in another book, Chemistry of Cooking and Cleaning (1882), which also investigated the chemistry of digestion. Against some domestic scientists and nutritionists who favored an almost puritanical severity in diet and forgot about details like flavor, the level-headed Richards reminded women that food still had to taste good, or else its consumers would never feel inclined to eat it. But she added that too many spices were bad for the digestive system, "like the too frequent and violent application of the whip to a willing steed." Another of her publications, The Dietary Computer, tabulated the nutrition of different foods against the cost, enabling poor housewives to get the most food quality for their pennies; in the following years, she wrote a succession of these economy-minded booklets, The Cost of Living (1899), The Cost of Food (1901), The Cost of Shelter (1905), and The Cost of Cleanness (1908).

Richards, like many of her New England contemporaries, had every confidence in herself and in the essential superiority of her ways—she was a strong believer in the supremacy of white Anglo-Saxons and some of her rhetoric has, by our standards, an uncomfortable racist edge. She won the support and the financial backing of Pauline Agassiz Shaw and Edward Atkinson, two Boston philanthropists, who funded a large survey of the eating habits of Boston's working people and the dangers of heavy alcohol consumption. Atkinson had risen from humble origins in the textile trade. As an abolitionist, he had funded John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry in 1859, and was now himself a food-reform enthusiast. He wrote The Science of Nutrition (1896) and invented the handy "Aladdin Oven," a kind of portable kerosene stove which Richards and her friends used in their food experiments. He was also an advocate of healthy homemade "sterile bread," made in his own kneading machine and devoid of the pernicious whitening agents used by commercial bakers.

Together with a domestic science reformer who had studied the issue in Europe, Mary Hinman Abel , Richards and Atkinson created the New England Kitchen in 1890, a center designed to transform Boston workers' diets for the better by giving them wholesome grains, vegetables, and fruits in place of fatty meat, beer, and cheap sweets. Whatever the nutritional merits of its food, however, the New England Kitchen never won much enthusiasm from the local people. Middle-class food faddists came to eat there but workers stayed away. Some of the food went to captive audiences (schoolchildren and prisoners), and the creators ate a little of it, but it was never a commercial success. It did, however, enhance the prestige of scientific food advocates among reformers, and Richards found herself increasingly in demand as a nutrition advisor at public institutions, schools, asylums, and hospitals. Jane Addams sent some of her Hull House volunteers from Chicago to study with Richards in Boston.

Ellen Richards declined to participate in establishing a women's exhibit at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, because she believed that women had already achieved equality with men and that a separate exhibit was inappropriate. To her, feminism had an old-fashioned air to it and by the 1890s, she said, "Women have now more rights and duties than they are fitted to perform." But she was present at the fair, supervising an ad hoc version of the New England Kitchen where she cooked her ideal foods and distributed literature on scientific housekeeping. In general, Richards did not hold women in high esteem. It seemed to her that they were too slow to adopt better methods and new ideas. As the historian Laura Shapiro shows, "she harangued her sex relentlessly. In her view women had to wake up, face new ideas, accept the help that science and technology offered, and give up the irrationality that characterized femininity. 'Women … have feared the thunder and ignored the microbe. They have the habit of shrieking at the sight of a toad…. Women cannot see why water will not run uphill…. They need the in fluence of the scientific spirit.'"

Richards was certainly an exceptional woman in her range of interests and her level of scientific skills. With her friend Atkinson, she also did pioneer work in the reduction of fire hazards in textile mills, by studying the propensity of lubricants to break down and catch fire, and trying to perfect fire-resistant oils. Later, she built on her ecological ideas, recognizing the interdependence of people, animals, and the natural world, appealing for more attention to water purity, and, as usual, writing extensively on the issue. Her book Air, Water, Food (1900) outlined the nature of these interdependent elements, and she followed up in 1904 with The

Art of Right Living, which sounds a familiar environmental note:

We seem to have assimilated so deeply the idea that man is lord of all the earth that … we do not grasp the thought that man must be lord of himself, also, if he is not to succumb to nature's rule in the end…. We react to our environment, therefore we must act upon it to make it satisfactory.

But her views on ecology, as on domestic affairs, were practically oriented—she was certainly no "deep ecologist." In Euthenics: The Science of Controllable Environment (1910), she made the argument for environmental improvement in terms of its profitability, and showed the vast saving in human capital which could be realized by improved air and water conditions. She outlined a virtual utopia in which citizens' environmental safety committees played a large public role in close cooperation with private industry, schools, and government.

Richards was a regular participant in domestic-science summer conferences, held at Lake Placid, New York, from 1899. In 1908, at the tenth annual meeting, the participants decided to constitute themselves the American Home Economics Association, and they chose Richards as their first president. She tried to prevent it from becoming a women's organization and welcomed the participation of state university departments of dairying, agriculture, and nutrition. Overwork forced her to resign after two years, now aged 68, but she continued to work at an unending round of commitments which included membership of over 200 advisory panels. Ellen Richards died exhausted after a series of heart attacks in March 1911. Her husband lived on in their exemplary home until his death in 1944 at the age of 100, a living testimony to the invigorating regimen, clean air, and good diet his wife had pioneered.


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

Hunt, Caroline. The Life of Ellen H. Richards. Boston, MA: Whitcomb & Barrows, 1912.

Richards, Ellen. The Chemistry of Cooking and Cleaning: A Manual for Housekeepers. Boston, MA: Estes & Lauriat, 1882.

Shapiro, Laura. Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1986.

Yost, Edna. American Women of Science. Philadelphia, PA: Frederick A. Stokes, 1943.

Patrick Allitt , Professor of History, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia