Richards, Ellen Swallow, 1842-1911
- Existence: 1842 December 3 - 1911 October 30
- Usage: 1875 (Not Before)
- Usage: 1842 - 1875
- Usage: 1875 (Not Before)
- Usage: 1875 (Not Before)
- Usage: 1842 - 1875
Ellen Swallow Richards (1842 – 1911), was an American environmental chemist considered to be the pioneer of home economics , as well as the first woman admitted to MIT where she graduated with a BS in 1873. She was the Institute’s first female instructor, as well as the first American woman to earn a degree in chemistry . Specializing in sanitary engineering, Swallow Richards is also thought to be the first scientist to ever aim chemistry towards the study of nutrition .
Born in Dunstable, Massachusetts, Swallows Richards was home-schooled as a child, but later attended Westford Academy at the age of 16 . At the Academy, her proficiency for languages created a demand for her as a tutor, earning enough money for herself to continue her studies for the next several years . In 1868, Swallow Richards was admitted to Vassar College as a third-year student . At Vassar, she was influenced by Charles Farrar, head of the Department of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, who first demonstrated to her how chemistry relates to everyday household situations . Maria Mitchell, an astronomy professor and activist for women in science, also was a great mentor to her .
Swallow Richards graduated from Vassar in 1870, and in the same year would continue her education at MIT to study chemistry. She was considered a special exception as the first woman admitted to the Institute, and the school made it clear that “her admission did not establish a precedent for the general admission of females," according to official records . Swallow Richards acquired her degree from MIT in 1873 as a result of her thesis “Notes on Some Sulpharsenites and Sulphantimonites from Colorado.” From Vassar, she would also achieve a Master of Arts degree for a thesis on the chemical analysis of iron ore . Still continuing at MIT, Swallow Richards, now an established water scientist, was qualified to receive the Institute’s first doctorate degree, but the school was reluctant to award the achievement to a woman. MIT would later award its first doctorate degree in 1886 .
Swallow Richards remained at MIT, becoming a lab assistant for the head of the chemistry department, William Ripley Nichols . While there, In 1875, she would marry Robert Hallowell Richards, the chairman of the mining engineering department at MIT.
In 1876, Richards became the head of the science section of the Society to Encourage Studies at Home . Soon thereafter, at her insistence, the Women’s Education Association of Boston was able to commit funds to create the MIT Women’s Laboratory, established in effort to create better opportunities for the scientific education of women . She became an assistant director alongside Professor John M. Ordway, an expert in technical chemistry . Coursework in the fields of chemical analysis, industrial chemistry, mineralogy, and applied biology were all taught, and some consulting work was also offered to its students .
During her time in the Women’s laboratory, she would also co-found what is now the American Association of University Women (AAWU). Similarly, during this period, she published several works, including The Chemistry of Cooking and Cleaning (1882; with Marion Talbot) and Food Materials and Their Adulterations (1885) , also founding the publication, American Kitchen Magazine . The Laboratory would include over 500 women, and would eventually disband in 1883 after MIT officially allowed female students to be part of the general student body .
In 1884, after her time in the Women’s laboratory, Swallow Richards would hold an official instructor position at MIT, teaching sanitary chemistry. She would maintain this position until she passed away in 1911 . Her laboratory research outside of MIT is also especially notable, as her work was very influential across many scientific concentrations.
In 1887, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts commissioned Swallow Richards and MIT’s sanitary chemistry team to conduct research on the stability of its drinking water. The study was the first of its kind, and further prompted Massachusetts to incorporate the country’s first water-quality standards and municipal sewage-treatment plant .
In 1890, under the guidance of Swallow Richards, the New England Kitchen was created as a way to promote nutritious and inexpensive food to working-class families . The program emphasized its methods of safe meal preparation by demonstrating how to sanitarily prepare meals. From 1894, the Boston Public Schools Committee would officially source their school lunches from the New England Kitchen, also leading to similar kitchen programs to be shown in the 1894 World's Fair .
Swallow Richards is considered as well to be one of the first scientists to properly study and discuss the subject of Euthenics. She first established the word, Euthenics, in her work The Cost of Shelter (1905). She would later elaborate on her definition In her book Euthenics: The Science of Controllable Environment (1910) in which she describes the term as “the betterment of living conditions, through conscious endeavor, for the purpose of securing efficient human beings.” 
In 1899, Swallow Richards established an annual conference to establish standards and a general consensus on the field. Out of this series of conferences, The American Home Economics Association was formed, and would come to further develop training outlines for relevant professionals. Swallow Richards would act as the association's first President from 1908-1910 , in which she subsequently established the Journal of Home Economics. In 1910, Swallow Richards was also appointed to the council of the National Education Association, tasked to see the implementation of home economics across the nation’s public schools .
Before her passing, Smith College, a women’s college in Northampton, MA, awarded Swallow Richards an honorary Phd in recognition of her life’s work. Not long afterward, on March 30, 1911, Ellen Swallow Richards died in her home in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. Her house, in which she lived with her husband for many years and later passed away, is now considered a national historic landmark . In 1973, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of her graduation from MIT, the Institute established the Ellen Swallow Richards Professorship for distinguished female faculty members .
1. “Ellen Swallow Richards”, Britannica Encyclopedia (November 2022) 2. “Ellen Swallow Richards”, Wikipedia (February 2023) 3. “Ellen Swallow Richards ‘1870”, Vassar Encyclopedia (2005) 4. H.P. Talbot, “Ellen Swallow Richards: Biography”, Technology Review, Vol. 13 (April 1911) 5. Nancy DuVergne, “Scene at MIT: Ellen Swallow Richards leads the Women's Laboratory”, MIT News (March 2017)
Found in 15 Collections and/or Records:
Series 3, Events, Programs, Subject Files (1971-1995), includes material about a variety of programs, projects, collections, and events that the MIT Museum took part in across the MIT campus, such as Independent Activities Period (IAP) activities, Family Weekend, and Tech Day.
The collection includes family correspondence, and a will, 1811-1897; McCormick's student notebooks from her classes at MIT in chemistry, English literature, political economics, sanitary science, geology, climatology, history, biology, and physiology; examinations; papers she wrote, 1895-1902; and "Laboratory Notes on Water Analysis," by Ellen Swallow Richards, from a class McCormick took from Richards.
The collection does not contain material on her philanthropic activities.
The collection consists of a transcript of an interview by Ellen S. Richards with Margaret Stinson concerning Stinson's administration of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) inorganic chemistry laboratory from the opening of the Institute in February 1865 to 1911. Also includes her general reminiscences about MIT faculty, students, and staff, particularly those associated with the MIT course in chemistry.
Report of the Committee on the School, includes the 1878 Report on the Women's Laboratory by Ellen S. Richards, 1882 - 1882
Richards , Ellen H. (Several autographs and additional items): First woman graduate, SB 1873; Chemistry, 1878-1911
Research materials for book on early MIT history.