Ellen Swallow Richards Papers Project

  • Oswego, New York, United States
  • Project duration: 2017 -

The first woman to graduate from and then teach at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, leader of the 20th century home economics movement, and ardent supporter of women’s scientific education, chemist Ellen Swallow Richards (1842-1911) was a “pioneer” for women’s professional and educational opportunities. She used her position at MIT to build a widespread network of women working in science and reform efforts. Richards’s intellectual curiosity as a scientist was vast and led to widespread life-long scientific contributions. In the field of environmental science, Richards introduced German scientist Ernst Haeckel’s term “ecology” to English-speakers, she started a water testing procedure that determined levels of pollutants in Massachusetts waters – the first of its kind – and she worked on the first modern sewage treatment system. At the end of her life she introduced a holistic environmental philosophy that linked the home with the natural world called euthenics, and while the term was short-lived, the need for a holistic environmental ethos was not. In nutritional science she researched food adulteration, started a model kitchen to reform the eating habits and nutrition of working class and immigrant populations. Similar kitchens were implemented in many settlement houses, including Jane Addams’s Hull House, and modeled at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Richards was a leader of the 20th century home economics movement, and founding member of the Lake Placid Conference on Home Economics. And in the background of all of this work was Richards’s lifelong efforts to mentor other female scientists and increase women’s professional opportunities in the sciences.

Why does the life of Ellen Swallow Richards, who was born in a small town in Massachusetts in 1842 and died in Jamaica Plains, Massachusetts in 1911, resonate now? The contemporary efforts to increase participation of women and girls in STEM would be a very familiar pursuit to Richards who while at MIT wrote “I hope that I am winning a way which others will keep open.” Indeed, Richards was the reason that many twentieth-century women found a pathway into laboratories and science departments. Beyond increasing inclusion in STEM, Richards would recognize much of the rhetoric surrounding today’s environmental movement, specifically about the need to clean the earth’s air, water, and soil. Indeed, like the message of today’s climate scientists, Richards was one of the first Americans to write about humankind’s impending doom should we fail to protect the natural environment. Finally, Richards’s story is powerful for today’s audiences in that it points to the tensions between Progressive reform efforts, such as improving the nutrition of working-class populations, and the economic realities required to bring about such reforms. This tension is best evidenced when Andrew Carnegie and his partner, Henry Phipps, funded Richards’s nutritional research one year preceding the deadly Pullman Strike of 1893 in Homestead, Pennsylvania. Rather than pay the laborers more, Phipps and Carnegie funded the nutritional science work so that laborers would know to spend their meager paychecks on nutritious foods, providing them with more energy. In Richards’s case, as in today, the corporations did not save us, and in the early 1900s Richards gave up her nutritional reform work as unproductive.

Richards’s story is also significant for women in science, particularly in understanding how networks of nineteenth and twentieth century women supported and sustained each other. Award-winning astronomer and Vassar College professor Maria Mitchell was Richards first female scientific mentor. Ellen Swallow attended Vassar College from 1868-1870 and Mitchell selected Ellen to mentor her in astronomy post-graduation. Instead Ellen Swallow chose chemistry and fought for a spot at the newly-opened MIT. She was the sole student working in a laboratory of men and attending classes. She reported sweeping up the lab without being asked, sewing on buttons for the professors, and working non-stop to prove her worth as a woman student. Many of the professors welcomed her, although a few did not. One such friend was Robert Richards, MIT professor of mining engineering, and he became her life-long supporter and partner when they married in 1875.

The letters project explores these themes in-depth. However, like with any historical recovery project, these tools and the stories they tell are limited by the data presented in the documents. The data found in this archive has produced interesting visualizations, but it’s important to remember in each case what these tools can and cannot do. Below, under each heading, please find an explanation of the affordances and limitations of each tool. Overall, the creator of this project hopes you will remember that these tools can help us ask questions about Richards’s life and women in science in new ways, but no single tool will offer a complete retelling.