Ellen Swallow Richards

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Ellen H. Swallow Richards
Ellen Swallow Richards (2).jpg
Ellen H. Richards
From The Life of Ellen H. Richards
by Caroline L. Hunt, 1912
Born Ellen Henrietta Swallow (Nellie)
(1842-12-03)December 3, 1842
Dunstable, Massachusetts
Died March 30, 1911(1911-03-30) (aged 68)
Boston, Massachusetts
Resting place
Christ Church Cemetery
Gardiner, Maine
Residence 32 Eliot St., Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts
Nationality American
Alma mater Westford Academy
Vassar College
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Occupation Chemist
Known for Home economics
School meals
Spouse(s) Robert Hallowell Richards
(1844-1945) m.1875
Parent(s) Fanny Gould Taylor
Peter Swallow
Signature Ellen Swallow Richards Signature.svg

Ellen Henrietta Swallow Richards (December 3, 1842 – March 30, 1911) was an industrial and environmental chemist in the United States during the 19th century. Her pioneering work in sanitary engineering and experimental research in domestic science laid a foundation for the new science of home economics.[1][2] She was the founder of the home economics movement characterized by the application of science to the home, and the first to apply chemistry to the study of nutrition.[3]

Richards graduated from Westford Academy (second oldest secondary school in Massachusetts) in 1862. She was the first woman admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she graduated in 1873 and later became its first female instructor.[1][4] Mrs. Richards was the first woman in America accepted to any school of science and technology, and the first American woman to earn a degree in chemistry, which she earned from Vassar College in 1870.[5][6]

Richards was a pragmatic feminist, as well as a founding ecofeminist who believed that women's work within the home was a vital aspect of the economy.[7]


Early childhood[edit]

Daguerreotype of Ellen Henrietta Swallow, c. 1848

Richards was born in Dunstable, Massachusetts. She was the only child of Peter Swallow (b. June 27, 1813, Dunstable; d. March 1871, Littleton, Massachusetts) and Fanny Gould Taylor (b. April 9, 1817, New Ipswich, New Hampshire), both whom came from established families of modest means, who were believers in the value of education.

Early life and education[edit]

Ellen was home-schooled in her early years. In 1859 the family moved to Westford and Ellen attended Westford Academy.[8]

Old Westford Academy

Studies at the academy included mathematics, composition, and Latin, similar to New England academies of the time. Ellen's Latin proficiency allowed her to study French and German, a rare language north of New York.[9] Because of these skills she was much in demand as a tutor, which income made it possible to further her studies.

In March 1862, she left the academy. Two months later, in May, Ellen developed the measles which set her back physically and interrupted her preparations to begin teaching.

Miss Ellen Henrietta Swallow, c. 1864

In the spring of 1863 the family moved to Littleton, Massachusetts, where Mr. Swallow had just purchased a larger store and expanded the business. By May 1864, Miss Swallow, now twenty-one, took a teaching position that June. .[8]

She did not teach again in 1865 but spent that year tending the family store and taking care of her mother, who was ill. During the winter of 1865–66, Swallow studied and attended lectures in Worcester.[8]

College education[edit]

In 1868 she entered Vassar College. She earned her bachelor's degree in two years. She then earned a master of arts degree with a thesis on the chemical analysis of iron ore. Richards served on the board of trustees of Vassar College for many years and was granted an honorary doctor of science degree in 1910.

When she entered Vassar, in September, 1868, she was classified as a special student. Somewhat over a year later she was admitted to the senior class, and was graduated in 1870. The strongest personal influences which came to her in college were from Maria Mitchell, the astronomer, and from professor Charles S. Farrar (1826-1908[10]), who was at the head of the Department of Natural Sciences and Mathematics.[8]

Miss Ellen Henrietta Swallow, Vassar Class Picture, 1870
Signature from 1873 MIT thesis

In 1870, she wrote to Merrick and Gray, commercial chemists in Boston, asking them if they would take her as an apprentice. Merrick and Gray replied that they were not in a position to take pupils, and that her best course was to try to enter the Institute of Technology of Boston as a student.[8]

On December 10, 1870, after some discussion, it was voted that the Faculty of the Institute of Technology recommend to the Corporation the admission of Miss Swallow as a special student in Chemistry.[8] Swallow thus became the first woman admitted to Massachusetts Institute of Technology where she was able to continue her studies, "it being understood that her admission did not establish a precedent for the general admission of females" according to the records of the meeting of the MIT Corporation on December 14, 1870.[11]

In 1873, Swallow received a bachelor of science degree from MIT for her thesis, "Notes on Some Sulpharsenites and Sulphantimonites from Colorado".[12] She continued her studies at MIT and would have been awarded its first advanced degree, but MIT balked at granting this distinction to a woman and did not award its first advanced degree, a Master of Science in Chemistry, until 1886.[8]

Marriage and home[edit]

Robert and Ellen Richards, 1904

On June 4, 1875 Miss Swallow married Robert H. Richards (1844-1945), chairman of the Mine Engineering Department at MIT, and with whom she had worked in the mineralogy laboratory. They took up residence in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. With her husband's support she remained associated with MIT, volunteering her services and contributing $1,000 annually to the "Woman's Laboratory," a program in which her students were mostly schoolteachers whose training had lacked laboratory work and who wanted to perform chemical experiments and learn mineralogy.[13]

Scientific achievements[edit]

Air and water quality[edit]

In the 1880s, her interests turned toward issues of sanitation, in particular air and water quality.[14] She performed a series of water tests of local waters, which at the time served as drinking water for their immediate populations, consisting of over 40,000 samples. This resulted in the so-called "Richards' Normal Chlorine Map" which was predictive of inland water pollution in the state of Massachusetts. As a result, Massachusetts established the first water-quality standards in America, and the first modern sewage treatment plant was created.[15]


Richards' masters thesis at Vassar was an analysis of the amount of vanadium in iron ore.[15] She performed numerous experiments in mineralogy,including the discovery of an insoluble resident of the rare mineral samarskite. This was later determined by other scientists to yield samarium and gadolinium. In 1879 she was recognized by the American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers as their first female member.[14]

Home sanitation[edit]

Richards applied her scientific knowledge to the home. As the persons responsible for the home and family nutrition, Richards felt that all women should be educated in the sciences. She wrote books about science for use in the home, such as her "The Chemistry of Cooking and Cleaning", published in 1882.[16] Her book "Food Materials and Their Adulturations" (1885) led to the passing of the first Pure Food and Drug Act in Massachusetts.[15]

She used her own home as a kind of experimental laboratory for healthier living through science. With concern for air quality in the home, she moved from coal heating and cooking to gas. She and her husband installed fans to pull air from the home to the outside to create a cleaner air environment within the home. She also determined the water quality of the property's well through chemical testing, and to insure that waste water was not contaminating their drinking water.[16]


Main article: Euthenics

Richards derived the term euthenics from the Greek verb Eutheneo, Εὐθηνέω (eu, well; the, root of tithemi, to cause). To be in a flourishing state, to abound in, to prosper.—Demosthenes. To be strong or vigorous.—Herodotus. To be vigorous in body.—Aristotle.[17] And from the Greek Euthenia, Εὐθηνία. Good state of the body: prosperity, good fortune, abundance.—Herodotus.[17] The opposite of Euthenia is Penia - Πενία ("deficiency" or "poverty") the personification of poverty and need.[18]

In her book Euthenics: the science of controllable environment (1910),[19] she stated that the betterment of living conditions, through conscious endeavor, for the purpose of securing efficient human beings, is what the author means by Euthenics.

Vigorous debate about its exact meaning, confusion with the term eugenics, followed by the Great Depression and two world wars, where among the many factors which led to the movement never really getting the funding, nor the attention needed to put together a lasting, vastly multidisciplinary curriculum, but instead, split off into different disciplines. Child Study being one such curriculum. Thus, the end of euthenics as originally defined by Ellen Swallow Richards.

Martin Heggestad of the Mann Library notes that "Starting around 1920, however, home economists tended to move into other fields, such as nutrition and textiles, that offered more career opportunities, while health issues were dealt with more in the hard sciences and in the professions of nursing and public health. Also, improvements in public sanitation (for example, the wider availability of sewage systems and of food inspection) led to a decline in infectious diseases and thus a decreasing need for the largely household-based measures taught by home economists."[20]

Richards was the first writer to use the term, in The Cost of Shelter (1905), with the meaning "the science of better living".[21]

Laboratory work[edit]

After her first experience as water analyst under Professor Nichols, Mrs. Richards entered upon a large private practice in sanitary chemistry, including the examination not only of water, but also of air and of food, and the testing of wallpapers and fabrics for arsenic. In 1878 and 1879 she examined a large number of staple groceries for the state, the results of her investigation being published in the first annual report of the Board of Health, Lunacy and Charity, which had succeeded the earlier Board of Health.[8]

She also served as a consultant to the Manufacturers Mutual Fire Insurance Co and in 1900 wrote the textbook Air, Water, and Food from a Sanitary Standpoint, with A. G. Woodman. Her interest in the environment led her to introduce the word ecology into English around 1892, which had been coined by German biologist Ernst Haeckel to describe the "household of nature".

Mrs. Richards' interests also included applying scientific principles to domestic situations, such as nutrition, clothing, physical fitness, sanitation, and efficient home management, creating the field of home economics. "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," she wrote to her parents. She published The Chemistry of Cooking and Cleaning: A Manual for House-keepers in 1881, designed and demonstrated model kitchens, devised curricula, and organized conferences.[22]


Her first post-college career was as chemistry lecturer at MIT, from 1873-1878, albeit she served without pay.[14]

2011 addition to the Lawrence Experiment Station

From 1884 until her death, Mrs. Richards was an instructor in the newly founded laboratory of sanitary chemistry at the Lawrence Experiment Station, the first in the United States and headed by her former professor, William R. Nichols.

In 1884 she was appointed as an instructor in sanitary chemistry in a newly formed MIT laboratory for the study of sanitation.[23]

Mrs. Richards was a consulting chemist for the Massachusetts State Board of Health from 1872 to 1875 and the Commonwealth's official water analyst from 1887 until 1897.[citation needed] She also served as nutrition expert for the US Department of Agriculture.

Women's education[edit]

Woman's Laboratory assistant instructor[edit]

Mrs. Richards appeared before the Woman's Education Association of Boston on November 11, 1875, and in an address which made a deep impression set forth the needs of women. She expressed the belief that the governing board of the Institute of Technology would give space for a woman's laboratory if the Association would supply the necessary money for instruments, apparatus, and books. Scholarships also would be almost indispensable, she said.[8]

The Woman's Education Association appointed a committee to enter into communication with the Institute of Technology, which lead to the creation of the MIT Woman's Laboratory, November 1876. The Institute offered a small building planned for a gymnasium to be the location of the Laboratory. Mrs. Richards became an assistant instructor (without pay) in 1879 in chemical analysis, industrial chemistry, mineralogy, and applied biology under Professor John M. Ordway. The Woman's Education Association agreed to raise money to buy equipment for The Laboratory.[8]

A new building, erected by the Institute in 1883, reserved space for all laboratory students' use, women as well as men. The Woman's Laboratory was closed and the building demolished.

In 1884, Mrs. Richards was appointed Instructor in Sanitary Chemistry in the Institute of Technology itself, a position which she filled until the time of her death. In addition to all her faculty duties and instructional work, she was also the "untitled" Dean of Women.[8]

American correspondence school instructor[edit]

In January 1876, Mrs. Richards began a long association as an instructor with the first American correspondence school, the Society to Encourage Studies at Home, where she developed the science department.[8]

In 1886 a new section promoted by Swallow, Sanitary Science, was established in the Society. It was at a time when household conveniences employing water, gas, or electricity were becoming general, but housekeepers seldom understood what dangers and difficulties attended the ignorant use of the new arrangements. She saw that instruction was needed, and was glad to make the society a means to that end and to spread abroad knowledge of the possibilities of organizing the house on truly scientific principles.[8]

American Association of University Women[edit]

Headquarters of the AAUW in Washington DC

Richards and Marion Talbot (Boston University class of 1880) became the "founding mothers" of what was to become the American Association of University Women (AAUW) when they invited fifteen other women college graduates to a meeting at Talbot's home in Boston, on November 28, 1881. The group envisioned an organization in which women college graduates would band together to open the doors of higher education to other women and to find wider opportunities for their training. The Association of Collegiate Alumnae (ACA), AAUW's predecessor organization, was officially founded on January 14, 1882.

Teachers' School of Science[edit]

Lucretia Crocker, along with women’s clubs and other help in the Boston area, created a "Teachers' School of Science" in Back Bay at the New museum of the Boston society. Along with Mrs. Richards, Crocker created a mineralogy course for teachers. Teacher found such education in the Boston area because of area scientist that would teach their courses.[24]

New England Kitchen of Boston[edit]

In January 1, 1890, Mrs. Richards entered upon an undertaking which, to use the words of a popular English writer, was "an interesting failure, but a failure which had all the educational value of a first reconnaissance into unexplored territory." This experiment was the famous New England Kitchen of Boston, at 142 Pleasant Street, and the "unexplored territory" was the willingness of the poor to be scientifically fed. The aim of which was to serve cooked food for home consumption and to give the largest possible amount of nourishment for a given amount of money.[8]

Years later, Mrs. Richards, herself, wrote in her preface to part one of The Rumford kitchen leaflets : No. 17, "The Story of the New England Kitchen; Part II; A study in social economics", by Mary Hinman Abel (1850–1938):[25]

Rumford Kitchen[edit]

Count Rumford frontispiece of the Rumford Kitchen leaflets

In 1893, when Mrs. Richards had charge of the Rumford Kitchen at the World's Fair in Chicago, she accepted the added work and responsibility of arranging an exhibition of the work of Studies at Home.[8]

The opening statement of the Guide to the Rumford Kitchen: An Exhibit made by the State of Massachusetts in connection with the Bureau of Hygiene and Sanitation (World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893) by General Francis A. Walker explains:[25]

The first commercially available "modern" kitchen ranges began to appear about 1800, they were the invention of an American named Sir Benjamin Thompson, Count von Rumford.

American Public School Lunch Program[edit]

"The first major program had started in some Boston high schools in 1894, in large part due to Ellen Richards and Edward Atkinson. The New England Kitchen ran the program as a 'private enterprise' that paid for itself many times over. Although the lunches never became effective instruments for teaching the New Nutrition the founders had envisaged, by the early twentieth century they were praised for providing nutritionally sound meals and low prices to children who would not normally have them, and this became the main justification for similar lunch programs in other cities."[26]

In 1946, President Harry S. Truman signed into law the National School Lunch Program to provide low-cost or free school lunch meals to qualified students through subsidies to schools.[27] The program was established as a way to prop up food prices by absorbing farm surpluses, while at the same time providing food to school age children.[2] It was named after Richard Russell, Jr., and President Harry S. Truman signed into law in 1946.[28]

Lake Placid Conference[edit]

Early in September, 1899, trustees of the Lake Placid Club (Morningside, New York) thought it was the right time to bring together those most interested in home science, or household economics. They sent out many invitations for the Lake Placid Conference scheduled to take place Sept. 19-25, 1899. One of those invitations found its way to Mrs. Richards, a personal request by Mr. Melvil Dewey, one of the club's trustees, for her to attend. Standards of living was the subject of an evening lecture given by Mrs. Richards, who was elected chairman of the conference.[29]

American Home Economics Association[edit]

In 1908, Mrs. Richards was chosen the first president of the newly formed American Home Economics Association, which was renamed the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences in 1994. She also founded and funded the Association's periodical, the Journal of Home Economics, which began publication in 1909. It was renamed the Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences in 1994 when the Association changed its name.[8]

Her books and writings on this topic 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). Some of these went through several editions.


Richards died on March 30, 1911 at her home in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts suffering with angina.[1] She is buried in the family cemetery in Gardiner, Maine.


Ellen Swallow Richards Residence
Ellen H. Swallow Richards House Boston MA 02.jpg
Ellen Swallow Richards is located in Massachusetts
Ellen Swallow Richards
Location 32 Eliot St., Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts
Coordinates 42°18′41.5″N 71°7′3.5″W / 42.311528°N 71.117639°W / 42.311528; -71.117639Coordinates: 42°18′41.5″N 71°7′3.5″W / 42.311528°N 71.117639°W / 42.311528; -71.117639
Area 0.2 acres (0.081 ha)
Architectural style Italianate
Governing body Private
NRHP Reference # 92001874[30]
Added to NRHP March 31, 1992
  • The Ellen Swallow Richards House designated a National Historic Landmark in 1992.[31]
  • In 1925, Vassar College, based around alumna Richards' ideas, began an interdisciplinary curriculum of euthenics studies located in their recently constructed Minnie Cumnock Blodgett Hall of Euthenics, which was officially dedicated in 1929.[32]
  • In her honor, MIT designated a room in the main building for the use of women students, and in 1973, on the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of Richard's graduation, established the Ellen Swallow Richards professorship for distinguished female faculty members.
  • In 1993, Richards was honored by inclusion into the National Women's Hall of Fame.
  • In 2011, she was listed as #8 on the MIT150 list of the top 150 innovators and ideas from MIT.

Selected works[edit]

Manuscript collections[edit]

Richards's manuscripts are contained in various collections throughout the United States and beyond. Aside from those listed below, manuscripts can be found within collections related to the organizations Richards associated herself with, such as the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences, whose scattered manuscripts are housed in collections in Cornell University, Iowa State University, etc.[34][35]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "Mrs. Ellen H. Richards Dead. Head of Social Economics in Massachusetts Institute of Technology". New York Times. March 31, 1911. Retrieved 2014-03-08. 
  2. ^ "Richards, Ellen Swallow, Residence". National Historic Landmarks Program. April 7, 1991. Retrieved 2013-09-04. 
  3. ^ Mozans, H. J. (1913). Woman in science. London: University of Notre Dame Press. p. 217. ISBN 0-268-01946-0. 
  4. ^ "Campus Life: M.I.T.; Salute to Women At a School Once 99.6% Male". New York Times. April 7, 1991. Retrieved 2014-03-08. When Ellen Swallow Richards came to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in January 1871, she was the first woman to attend the institute, then based in Boston. 
  5. ^ "Ellen Swallow Richards". Encyclopedia of Women and American Politics. 
  6. ^ "Ellen H. Swallow Richards". Chemical Heritage Foundation. Retrieved 2012-09-12. 
  7. ^ Richardson, Barbara (2002). "Ellen Swallow Richards: 'Humanistic Oekologist,' 'Applied Sociologist,' and the Founding of Sociology". American Sociologist 33 (3): 21–58. doi:10.1007/s12108-002-1010-6. 
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Hunt, Caroline Louisa (1912). The life of Ellen H. Richards (1st ed.). Boston: Whitcomb & Barrows. 
  9. ^ Kennedy, June W. (2006). Westford Recollections of Days Gone By: Recorded Interviews 1974-1975 A Millennium Update (1st ed.). Bloomington, IN: Author House. ISBN 1-4259-2388-7. LCCN 2006904814. 
  10. ^ Vassar Historian. "Charles Farrar". http://vcencyclopedia.vassar.edu. Retrieved 26 August 2013. 
  11. ^ Ellen Swallow Richards & MIT: Institute Archives & Special Collections: MIT
  12. ^ Notes on Some Sulpharsenites and Sulphantimonites from Colorado
  13. ^ Rossiter, Margaret W. (1982). Women Scientists in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 68. ISBN 0801824435. 
  14. ^ a b c Linda Zierdt-Warshaw (2000). American Women in Technology. ISBN 9781576070727. 
  15. ^ a b c Elizabeth H. Oakes (2002). International Encyclopedia of Women Scientists (Facts on File Science Library). Facts on File. ISBN 0816043817. 
  16. ^ a b Clarke, Robert (1973). Ellen Swallow. Chicago: Follett Pub. Co. ISBN 0695803883. 
  17. ^ a b Richards, Ellen H. Swallow (1912) [1910]. Euthenics: The Science of Controllable Environment : A Plea for Better Conditions As a First Step Toward Higher Human Efficiency (2nd ed.). Boston: Whitcomb & Barrows. ISBN 0405098278. 
  18. ^ Theoi Project - Penia
  19. ^ Ellen H. Richards (1910). Euthenics, the science of controllable environment. Boston: Whitcomb & Barrows. 
  20. ^ HEARTH Library-Cornell University
  21. ^ Grandy, John K. (2006). Birx, H.J., ed. Euthenics. Encyclopedia of Anthropology. 5 Vols. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications. doi:10.4135/9781412952453. ISBN 9781412952453. 
  22. ^ Ellen Swallow Richards: Rumford Kitchen: Institute Archives & Special Collections: MIT
  23. ^ Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie (1986). Women in science: antiquity through the nineteenth century. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press. ISBN 026215031X. 
  24. ^ Kohlstedt, Sally Gregory. (September 2005). Nature, Not Books: Scientists and the Origins of the Nature-Study Movement in the 1890s. Isis, Vol. 96, No. 3. pp. 324–352, p. 328. 
  25. ^ a b Richards, Ellen H. (1899). Plain words about food: the Rumford kitchen leaflets, 1899. (1st ed.). Boston: Rockwell and Churchill Press. 
  26. ^ Levenstein, Harvey (1988). Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 116. 
  27. ^ Copy of the School Lunch Act As Enacted in 1946, Federal Education Policy History website
  28. ^ The National School Lunch Program Background and Development
  29. ^ Richards, Ellen H., ed. (1901–1908), Lake Placid Conference proceedings, Lake Placid Conference, Lake Placid, NY: American Home Economics Association 
  30. ^ "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2009-03-13. 
  31. ^ National Historic Landmark profile, National Park Service. Accessed 2013-09-03.
  32. ^ Vassar Historian. "The Vassar Summer Institute". http://vcencyclopedia.vassar.edu. Retrieved 26 August 2013. 
  33. ^ Globe Staff Writers (May 15, 2011). "The MIT 150". http://www.boston.com. Retrieved 26 August 2013. 
  34. ^ "Collection on Ellen Swallow Richards.". https://libraries.mit.edu/archives/. MIT, Cambridge, MA: MIT Institute Archives and Special Collections. 
  35. ^ "Ellen Swallow Richards Papers, 1882-1910.". http://asteria.fivecolleges.edu/index.html. Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, MA: Five College Archives & Manuscript Collections. 

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainGilman, D. C.; Thurston, H. T.; Moore, F., eds. (1905). "Richards, Ellen Swallow". New International Encyclopedia (1st ed.). New York: Dodd, Mead. 

External links[edit]