Encyclopedia Womannica

Tastemakers: Ellen Swallow Richards

Episode Summary

Ellen Swallow Richards (1842-1911) was a prominent American chemist and founder and champion of the scientifically-focused home economics movement.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins and Edie Allard. Theme music by Andi Kristins.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.  

Today’s Tastemaker was the 19th century’s most prominent American female chemist. She was the first woman to be admitted to MIT, a pioneer in the field of sanitation and sanitary engineering, and the founder and champion of the scientifically-focused Home Economics movement in the U.S. Let’s talk about Ellen Swallow Richards. 

Ellen Swallow was born in Dunstable, Massachusetts on December 3, 1842 into an old New England family that had fallen on hard times. Little is known about Ellen’s early years, except that she showed significant academic prowess.

Because her family didn’t have the resources to send her to one of the new women’s colleges in New England, Ellen spent her late teens and early 20s teaching school, cleaning houses, and tutoring students to earn the money needed to further her education.

 By 1868, when Ellen was in her mid 20s, she had scraped together the $300 she needed to enroll in Vassar College. While at Vassar, Ellen found herself heavily drawn to the sciences, particularly astronomy and chemistry. 

Ellen graduated with her Bachelor’s degree just two years later. She wanted to continue working in chemistry and applied for positions with a variety of industrial chemists and in different labs, but she was rejected by all. 

Ellen did, however, receive some excellent advice from one of these chemists who encouraged her to apply as a “special student” to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the premier university for the study of math and science in the U.S. Ellen was the first woman in the U.S. to be accepted to, and to attend, MIT. In fact, she was the first woman in the U.S. to be accepted into any science-focused university. 

In 1873, Ellen earned a second bachelor’s degree from MIT, as well as a Master’s degree from Vassar, where she had submitted a master’s thesis on the chemical analysis of a specific iron ore. Though Ellen continued on at MIT with the hope of one day earning her doctorate, it didn’t  happen due to her gender. 

While at MIT, Ellen met and fell in love with Professor Robert Hallow Richards, the chairman of MIT’s mining engineering department. In 1875, the two were married.

With the support of her husband, Ellen decided to chart her own course by volunteering her services to MIT to further the scientific education of women at the university. Her offer not only included her time and expertise, but also a $1,000 yearly donation to help fund the project thanks to the Woman’s Education Association of Boston.

In 1876, the Women’s Laboratory was established at MIT. This provided a special track for women who wanted to go into the sciences but for whom traditional access was often cut off. In 1879, Ellen became an unpaid assistant professor at the Women’s Laboratory, teaching everything from industrial chemistry to applied biology.

In 1884, MIT opened the country’s very first laboratory of sanitary chemistry. Ellen was appointed as an instructor from the very start. Three years later, the Massachusetts State Board of Health approached Ellen and her team with a major project: the state wanted to perform a comprehensive survey of quality in the state’s inland bodies of water, many of which were significantly polluted with sewage runoff and industrial waste. The scope and scale of the survey was the first of its kind, and the results led to the country’s first water-quality standards and the construction of the first modern sewage treatment plant. 

For 10 years, until 1897, Ellen served as the state water analyst for the Massachusetts State Board of Health, while continuing her work as an instructor at MIT. She and a colleague are responsible for writing one of the seminal early works in sanitary engineering during this period called, “Air, Water, and Food from a Sanitary Standpoint,” published in 1900. 

Ellen was also very interested in applying the scientific principles she used daily to topics relevant to the American home, including nutrition, the availability of high quality foods, home sanitation, and household efficiency. She was focused on how women could be less burdened by household chores so that they could pursue other callings, like education. 

In 1882, Ellen published “The Chemistry of Cooking and Cleaning: A Manual for Housekeepers,” and three years later she published “Food Materials and Their Adulterations.”

Ellen campaigned for domestic science as a new discipline by setting up model kitchens for the public to see, by organizing domestic science conferences to establish standards and by creating course outlines for what the attendees agreed to call “Home Economics.” 

  In 1908, the American Home Economics Association was formed, and Ellen was elected its first president. Two years later, she was invited to join the National Education Association council and tasked with overseeing Home Economics courses and curriculum for America’s public schools. 

Ellen died on March 30, 1911 in Boston. She was 68 years old. 

Tune in tomorrow for the story of another Tastemaker. We’ll be talking about the first African American woman to write a cookbook.

This week of Encyclopedia Womannica is brought to you by Verishop, an e-commerce destination for everyday luxury, where the tastemakers of today can get everything they need to dress, cook, clean, and live. Go to Verishop.com/Encyclopedia that's V-E-R-I-S-H-O-P.COM/encyclopedia for 15% off your first order

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!