Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Women's History Month | Ellen Swallow Richards

Ellen Swallow Richards was the first American woman to earn a degree in chemistry

[In honor of Women's History Month, 13.7 Billion Years remembers 22 female scientists throughout history who may be a bit overlooked today.]

In his 1866 book Generelle Morphologie der Organismen, German biologist Ernst Haeckel coined the term "Oekologie" (ecology) to describe the "household of nature."

In the United States, one person was critical in introducing the word "ecology" into English: Ellen Swallow Richards, who called for the "christening of a new science" during a lecture she delivered in Boston in 1892. In her view, this new line of study was an interdisciplinary branch of science that included consumer nutrition and environmental education. One main aspect of it eventually evolved into today's ecology, while the consumer nutrition element was split off and became home economics.

Born in 1842, Richards was the first woman admitted to and to receive a degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and later, became its first female instructor. She was also the first woman to be accepted into any school of science and technology in the United States and the first American woman to earn a degree in chemistry. Richards was America's leading female industrial and environmental chemist in the 19th century.

In 1887, when she was an instructor at the newly founded sanitary chemistry laboratory at the Lawrence Experiment Station in Massachusetts, the world's first trial station for drinking water purification and sewage treatment, Richards led a study of the state's water quality. Her data was used to identify pollution sources and improve sewage disposal. Because of her study, Massachusetts established the nation's first water-quality standards and the first modern sewage treatment plant.

In 1908, Richards was elected as the first president of the newly formed American Home Economics Association. Her many books on this subject include Food Materials and their Adulterations (1886), Conservation by Sanitation, The Chemistry of Cooking and Cleaning, The Cost of Living (1899), Air, Water, and Food (1900), The Cost of Food, The Cost of Shelter, The Art of Right Living, The Cost of Cleanness, Sanitation in Daily Life (1907) and Euthenics, the Science of Controllable Environment (1910).

"Perhaps the fact that I am not a radical and that I do not scorn womanly duties but claim it as a privilege to clean up and sort of supervise the room and sew things is winning me stronger allies than anything else," Richards wrote to her parents.

In 2011, Richards was listed as Number 8 on the MIT150 list of the top 150 innovators and ideas from MIT.

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image: (MIT Institute Archives & Special Collections, Wikimedia Commons)

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