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Women's History Month is a perfect time to celebrate one of MIT’s own legendary women — Ellen Henrietta Swallow Richards, the Institute's first female graduate and faculty member and a pioneer in water quality, nutritional safety, and ecology.
Richards earned an undergraduate degree at Vassar College in 1870. Later that year, she was admitted to MIT as a special student of chemistry, and she arrived on campus in January 1871. When she graduated in 1873, she was already an established water scientist.
In 1875, she married fellow MIT alumnus Robert Richards, a professor of mining engineering at the Institute, and the couple spent their honeymoon in Nova Scotia touring mines and collecting ore samples along with dozens of MIT students.
The following year, Ellen Swallow Richards raised money to launch the MIT Women’s Laboratory, where she taught chemical analysis, industrial chemistry, mineralogy, and biology to women. That lab, which drew some 500 students, closed in 1883 when women became part of the regular student body. The following year, Richards was appointed an instructor in sanitary chemistry, a post she held until her death in 1911.
Richards was highly influential in numerous areas throughout her career. In 1881, she raised funds to establish a marine biology laboratory that would became the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Her 1878-79 studies of adulterated foods revealed mahogany sawdust masquerading as cinnamon and sand in sugar; her findings prompted the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to pass its first food and drug safety acts. In 1887, Massachusetts commissioned MIT’s new sanitary chemistry lab to survey the commonwealth's drinking water, the first such study in the U.S. Led by Richards, the survey examined some 20,000 water samples for industrial waste and sewage. As a result, Massachusetts established America’s first water-quality standards and municipal sewage-treatment plant. In 1890, Richards pioneered the New England Kitchen, a scientific take-out restaurant designed to feed nutritious and inexpensive food to the poor. This led to a similar demo kitchen in the 1894 World’s Fair and the revamping of the Boston Public School lunch program. Richards wrote or co-authored 18 books from academic texts to manuals on the chemistry of cooking for housewives and founded the popular American Kitchen Magazine. And in 1899, as a way to build consensus and clarity in the new field of home science, Richards established an annual conference. The hosting group, which developed curricula and teacher training, became the American Home Economics Association, with Richards as president.
Throughout her life, Richards remained committed to women's education. In addition to her work in the Women's Laboratory, Richards taught a correspondence course for women by sending them microscopes, specimens, and lessons to examine their home environments. And in 1882, she co-founded a group supporting women’s education; that group grew into today’s American Association of University Women.
Submitted by: Nancy DuVergne Smith/MIT Alumni Association | Photo courtesy of the MIT Museum
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