Women and Adversity:
Ellen Henrietta Swallow Richards
First Woman to graduate M.I.T.
The recent bestseller Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus relates a clever use of chemistry in daily life, but readers can credit Ellen Swallow Richards for giving chemistry a household use. She is America’s first female professional chemist and is responsible for having Home Economics classes taught in schools because she believed science could be applied to household tasks. She also pioneered the field of sanitary engineering.
Swallow was an only child born on December 3, 1842 in Dunstable, Massachusetts. Both her parents were teachers. She was primarily taught at home but attended Westford Academy for a short time. She wanted to go to college, but at that time in American history, she had two strikes against her:
- Her family was poor
- She was a woman
Swallow worked as a teacher, tutor and housecleaner, and saved $300 for college. She was 25 when she was accepted as a junior at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York and graduated in two years. She wanted to continue her studies in chemistry, and the board at Massachusetts Institute of Technology gave her special consideration and decided to admit her, the first woman accepted at MIT.
In 1873 she not only earned her bachelor of science degree in chemistry from MIT but also her master’s degree from Vassar, writing her thesis on the chemical analysis of iron ore. She continued studying at MIT for two more years. Although she deserved earning her Ph.D., the school would not give its first Ph.D. to a woman.
1873-1878 — taught chemistry at MIT without earning a salary or title
1876 — helped establish the Women’s Laboratory at MIT for women to conduct research. It closed in 1883 when MIT awarded undergraduate degrees to women.
1879 — MIT assistant professor in chemical analysis, industrial chemistry, mineralogy and applied biology, without being given a salary
1887-1897 — Official water analyst for the Massachusetts State Board of Health
Until 1911 — Taught at MIT until her death
Some of her accomplishments
Devised a method to determine the amount of nickel in various ores
Became an authority in the chemical analysis of ores
Discovered Samarskite—a rare ore
Isolated the element Vanadium
Wrote 15 books
Founder of Science of Euthenics and Home Economics classes
1879 — first woman member of American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers
1882 — published The Chemistry of Cooking and Cleaning: A Manual for Housekeepers
1890 – Opened the New England Kitchen in Boston, informing people about nutrition and food preparation
1893—A similar kitchen created at the World’s Fair in Chicago
1899 – Organized a conference in Lake Placid, New York that served as the basis for the American Home Economics Association
1907—Wrote Sanitation in Daily Life
Married 1875 — Professor Robert Richards, head of the department of Mining Engineering at MIT
The couple had no children
Died — March 30, 1911
Learn more about Richards:
My ebooks available at amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com:
Honoring 23 Black Women, Recognizing 23 Notable Mothers, Saluting 23 Faithful Suffragists