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Ellen H. Swallow Richards: A pioneer in sanitary engineering and science

Ellen H. Swallow Richards.
Ellen H. Swallow Richards.

In celebration of Women’s History Month, the Globe has been highlighting the lives of local trailblazers. As the month winds down, we look at Ellen H. Swallow Richards (1842-1911), a pioneer in the field of sanitary engineering and a founder of home economics in the United States.

  • Born in Dunstable and spent her entire life in Massachusetts.
  • The first woman to be admitted to MIT as a special student. Richards volunteered her services and $1,000 annually to further women’s scientific education at MIT.
  • The first woman in America to be accepted by a scientific school.
  • In 1887, carried out a survey of the quality of the inland bodies of Massachusetts at the request of the Massachusetts State Board of Health. This led to the first state water-quality standards in the nation and the first modern municipal sewage treatment plant in Lowell.
  • From 1887 to 1897, served as the official water analyst for the State Board of Health.
  • Laid the groundwork and helped to found home economics in the United States. She believed that all women should be educated in the sciences, including good nutrition, pure foods, proper clothing, fitness, and sanitation along with cooking and cleaning.
  • For five years, taught chemistry at MIT without a salary or a title. After that, she was recognized as an assistant professor in chemical analysis, industrial chemistry, mineralogy, and applied biology but still went unpaid.
  • Helped establish the Women’s Laboratory at MIT after recognizing a need for practical facilities for women to conduct research.
  • Wrote more than 15 books and numerous articles, as well as reports on environmental science and engineering.
  • The first woman to obtain a degree in chemistry, which she earned in 1870 at Vassar College.
  • A feminist and a founding ecofeminist who believed that a women’s work within the home was a vital aspect of the economy. This led to her founding of home economics.
  • Richards’s book Food Materials and Their Adulterations led to the first Pure Food and Drug Act in Massachusetts.
  • Used her home as a laboratory for experimenting on healthier living through science. She worked to improve air quality inside, installed fans to bring air in from the outside, and determined the water quality of her property through chemical testing.

Famous Quotes:

  • “You cannot make women contented with cooking and cleaning and you need not try.”
  • “Work is a sovereign remedy for all ills, and a man who loves to work will never be unhappy."
  • “New England is the home of all that is good and noble, with her sternness and uncompromising opinions.”
  • “I prefer surveying for a week to spending a week in fashionable society even of the best class.”
  • “If you keep your feathers well-oiled the water of criticism will run off as from a duck’s back.”

Information from the Science History Institute and the American Chemical Society was used in this report.