Ellen Swallow Richards and Home Economics

Piedmont College home economics lab circa 1909

Piedmont College home economics lab circa 1909

On December 3, 1842, American chemist Ellen Henrietta Swallow Richards was born. She was the foremost female industrial and environmental chemist in the United States during the 19th century. Her pioneering work in sanitary engineering and experimental research in domestic science widened professional opportunities for women in the sciences and laid a foundation for the new science of home economics.

Ellen Swallow
photographed ca. 1864

Richard was educated at home, since both of her parents were trained as teachers. Later, she enrolled in a private academy and became especially interested in mathematics and natural sciences. She entered Vassar majoring in chemistry, but failed to find a position as a commercial chemist after. Fellow scientists suggested her to join the recently founded Massachusetts Institute of Technology. [1] She received a second Bachelor’s degree from MIT and a Master’s degree from Vassar. She married Robert Hallowell Richards, chairman of the MIT’s engineering department and received his support to volunteer her services and about $1.000 a year to support the women’s scientific education at MIT. Through her ambitions, the Women’s Laboratory was established at MIT in 1876 and she was appointed assistant instructor without any pay for teaching chemical analysis, industrial chemistry, mineralogy, and applied biology. [2]

Richards was expected to apply the scientific principles to domestic topics like nutrition, clothing, fitness, sanitation, and cleaning. She published The Chemistry of Cooking and Cleaning: A Manual for Housekeepers in 1882. She campaigned for the new discipline of home economics and began setting up kitchens open to the public as well as organizing conferences and the American Home Economics Association in which Richards was appointed the first president. [2]

Richards was appointed instructor in Sanitary Chemistry at the Institute of Technology in 1884 and directed the entire instruction in the chemistry of air, water and foods, for chemists, biologists and sanitary engineers. Further, Richards maintained an extensive private practice in sanitary chemistry for many years and acted in an advisory capacity for a very large number of public and private institutions. [3] In 1887, the Massachusetts State Board of Health requested Richards and her assistants to perform a survey of the waters of Massachusetts, many of which were already polluted with industrial waste and municipal sewage. Due to the findings in Richards’ study, the first state water quality standards in the nation and the first modern municipal sewage treatment plant, in Lowell, Massachusetts were established. For a hole decade, Richards became an official water analyst for the State Board of Health while continuing as an instructor at MIT. Along with A. G. Woodman, Richards wrote the classic text in the field of sanitary engineering in 1900: Air, Water, and Food from a Sanitary Standpoint. [2]

At yovisto, you may enjoy the video “How to Get More Women in Science and Technology” by Caroline Ducker.

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