Women in Science who deserve recognition and never got it: Ellen Richards

Women in Science who deserve recognition and never got it: Ellen Richards


Women in Science: Ellen Richards
If you've been following us for some time you will remember our blog about Women on Kickstarter. We came across a lot of interesting data that led us to surprising discoveries: one discovery being that Kickstarter campaigns run by women tend to be more successful. We even made a list with some of our favorite Kickstarter campaigns initiated by women. If you missed out on it show your team spirit and just catch up with us here.

At Atellani, we aim to recognize all pioneers in their fields but today in particular we wanted to talk about the brave women of science. So many women contributed to science with little or no recognition. These pioneers paved the way for our future female physicists, astronauts, programmers and so much more. Unfortunately, most of these inspiring women did not receive the amount of attention that their male counterparts received. We are here today to give recognition to Ellen Swallow Richards.


Ellen Richards: From Astronomy in Vassar College to a MIT Chemistry "special student"

The first thing you should know before we move forward is that it wasn’t easy for Ellen Richards to graduate from MIT in 1873. Richards started studying Astronomy at Vassar College. Maria Michell was Richards’ Astronomy professor. Trained in Europe, Michell was one of the few woman teaching at a university level of education at the time. Even though Michell was a big inspiration to her, Ellen Richards quickly realized Astronomy didn’t have a practical application. She loved Astronomy, but she wanted to solve the problems of her time. Most disciplines were focusing more on the scientific side of things, no one was concerned about how you were going to apply all of these findings. That’s why Richards decided to move in the direction of the field of Chemistry. Professor Farrar was her mentor at the time and he was very interested in the practical approach to science, encouraging her to look for a job in the Chemistry field.

Ellen Richards headed to Boston to interview with the local chemical companies to see if they would hire her, but was not able to find a job. One of the companies advised her to obtain a degree from MIT. They suggested it would help her find a job. That’s exactly what Ellen did. The MIT board ignored her application at first, but they finally came to their senses and reconsidered. This was a tricky situation. In order to admit Ellen, they told her she would be considered “a special student” and it would not be necessary to pay tuition fees. MIT explained that this was due to her poor upbringing. Ellen was initially excited because she felt they were considering her as a candidate for scholarship thanks to her accolades. What Richards later discovered was that the “special student” title was given only in order to safeguard the university in the event any other “regular” teacher or student should complain about her. MIT in that case would have had an excuse ready: she wasn't “a real student”. This was actually MIT’s way to test out and determine women’s aptitude in the field of science. Richards said that if she had been aware of the fact that being “special” was due to her gender at the time she would have never applied or attended MIT.

Members of the Department of Chemistry at MIT (1890) Members of the Department of Chemistry at MIT (1890)
Ellen Swallow Richards upon receiving honorary Degree of Doctor of Science at Smith College (1910) Ellen Swallow Richards upon receiving honorary Degree of Doctor of Science at Smith College (1910)


Science, Education and Feminism were the key to Ellen Richards

As time passed by, Ellen Richard’s desire was to involve and educate more women in Chemistry. She realized that there was little or no room for them to grow in places like MIT where it was very unlikely for women to be admitted. In order to try to solve this gender gap, Richards managed to create the Women’s Chemistry Building at MIT in 1876. She was given an old garage and basic equipment so that she could set up her first chemistry lab and give free lessons to women. In fact, for Ellen Richards education was key to achieve this goal and she knew women were shortchanged, particularly in the field of science. Ellen also organized a correspondence course for women from all over the country so they could learn science and how to teach others. Later on, thanks to her work as the first scientist to isolate the mineral Vanadium, Ellen Richards was awarded a Master in Science at the Vassar College. Once graduated, her biggest goal was to become a Doctor from MIT, but the Institute didn’t want be the first institute to award a doctorate to a woman, so unfortunately she was never able to see her dream come true.

Women’s Chemistry Building at MIT (1876) Women’s Chemistry Building at MIT (1876)
The Water Laboratory with the famous Chlorine Map The Water Laboratory with the famous Chlorine Map


Ellen Richards’ experiments with Home Economics and Domestic Science

Even though she faced many challenges from a professional viewpoint, she was much luckier in love. Ellen couldn’t have found a more perfect partner than Robert Richards. He was a professor that courted Ellen Richards for two years before being able to take her on a date. Ellen and Robert got married and they moved away from Boston to Jamaica Plain (near Boston) because they both strongly believed that the quality of life in Boston wasn’t good enough. They turned their home in Jamaica Plain into a living laboratory. Together they started experimenting and studying how much it cost to cook certain food items and contribute to the study of the cost of efficiency of living.


"There’s no man that can convince me to leave my independence."

Ellen Richards


ELLEN AND ROBERT RICHARDS Ellen and Robert Richards
The Ellen and Robert Richards collecting water samples from Jamaica Plain's Pond The Ellen and Robert Richards collecting water samples from Jamaica Plain's Pond

Her own home wasn’t her only experience in the field though. The New England Kitchen in 1890 was an experiment Richards made with a friend to create better food at a low cost for the poor people of New England. She then moved onto her next project that had more visibility, it was the Rumford Kitchen Designs for the Chicago Exposition in 1893. She designed a house that had all kinds of nutritional information posted on the walls and served nutritional meals at low cost. Thanks to her contribution and work to the Chicago Exposition, Ellen provided a better nutritional meal plan program to local schools in Boston.

Healthy, hunger-free kids Healthy, hunger-free kids, (circa 1890)
The New England Kitchen by Ellen Richards The New England Kitchen by Ellen Richards

Ellen Richards knew that for the era she was in that the best way to educate women would be through their household. She would often go to the Lake Placid Conferences with other scientists, researchers and inventors to talk about domestic discipline and how it should be arranged and organized, especially in the home. One of the main topics of these speeches was: "What are the standards we should set for a well-run home and a right way of living?” That’s how she came to invent Home Ecology, later called Home Economics as we know it today. It was an evolution of what scientists would call Domestic Science way back in the 1850’s.


The research of Ellen Richards for a better environment

Her way of thinking led her to the first air/water-quality standards in the nation and the first modern municipal sewage treatment plan, in Lowell, Massachusetts. From 1887 to 1897 Richards served as official water analyst for the State Board of Health while continuing as an instructor at MIT — the rank she held at her death in 1911. She and her colleague A. G. Woodman wrote a classic text in the field of sanitary engineering: Air, Water, and Food from a Sanitary Standpoint (1900). The project's success was in large measure due to her efforts in supervising the analysis of water samples, developing new laboratory techniques, apparatuses, and keeping the records of almost 20.000 water samples. The company that was later formed called Drown and Richards' Sanitary Survey produced the world's first water purity tables, established the first state water quality standards in the United States, and resulted in the world's initial modern sewage treatment testing laboratory, the Lawrence Experiment Station in Lowell, Massachusetts.


"The environment that people live in is the environment that they respond to and perpetuate. If the environment is good, so be it, but if it is poor so is the quality of life within it.”

Ellen Richards


Indoor Air Quality was already an important matter for Ellen Richards in the 1890s

Ellen was obviously a revolutionary figure in Science not only for women but for clean air and water quality in the home. Thanks to her work we now have a better understanding of the air we breathe and the importance it has for our health. She was the first one to raise awareness on how polluted indoor air can wreak havoc on our mental health and how it effects our concentration. Not only do we at Atellani have a lot to thank her for, but the world can thank her for the air and water quality standards we have today. We think Ellen would be proud of our BRID Air Purifier.

Stay tuned for a future article as we look at depth into her revolutionary contributions to the field of air quality.

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