Ellen Swallow

The singular career and contributions of Ellen Henrietta Swallow Richards (1842-1911)

March is Women’s History Month “commemorating and encouraging the study, observance and celebration of the vital role of women in American history.” In that spirit & in keeping with the 150th year celebration of APHA’s founding in 1872, we mark the singular career of Ellen Henrietta Swallow Richards (1842-1911). Her record of accomplishments is a parade of eventful discoveries marked by a series of firsts. The first women admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where as a special student, she graduates with a degree in chemistry, & then on to earn a master’s degree at Vassar. At MIT she became a key person in forming the first organized lab to develop engineering benchmarks to measure water standards & purity. A key and conscious theme throughout her career was a firm advocacy for professional equity and opportunity for women ‘s roles in science. She developed and in part funded a women’s laboratory at MIT to afford women their opportunity to be educated and become skilled in the techniques of chemistry-based research. As the laboratory developed, it

progressed into innovative research into foods, nutrition, and applications of their findings to daily living. In turn as the work evolved, it propelled the founding of the field of home economics. For us, and sure to be highlighted, she was an early APHA member joining APHA in 1888. When APHA’s first section, the Laboratory Section (initially named the Biological and Chemistry Section) was formed in 1899, she was among the first members, cited for her leadership role and was an active member until her death in 1911. As George Rosen, then Editor of the Journal of American Public Health, writing in 1974, “Public Health Then and Now” a paper, (4) “few readers of the Journal would recognize the name of Mrs. Richards or know where she belongs in the history of American public health. Ellen Richards has not been ignored by historians… but her role as a pioneer in bringing women into community health activity has been insufficiently emphasized as a pioneer today where she belongs”. READ MORE .

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Ellen Swallow AT VASSAR, 1870

Ellen Swallow RICHARDS 1904


To further set the context and views of Ellen Swallow Richards in perspective, the following is -a sampling of her quotes that provide an insight into her style, approach, and clarity. They demonstrate her considerable energy to pursue her goals as she took narrow opportunities and moved to expand them. If a door was open for her she stepped through it. She was, at once, both a visionary but practically minded and consistent in her goals and growth. Throughout her varied career she comes across as diplomatic but straightforward and authoritative speaker.


“Perhaps the fact that I am not a Radical or a believer in the all-powerful ballot for women to right her wrongs 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, etc., is winning me stronger allies than anything else.”

“If you keep your feathers well oiled, the water of criticism will run off as from a duck’s back.”

“Home Economics stands for the ideal home life for today unhampered by the traditions of the past and the utilization of all the resources of modern science to improve home life.”

“The quality of life depends upon the ability of society to teach it’s members how to live-in harmony with their environment defined first as family, then the community, then the world and its resources.” “The unwilling mind is not a teachable mind.” “You cannot make women contented with cooking and cleaning and you need not try.”

Timeline Ellen Swallow Richards Timeline–1842-1911

Pioneer in Sanitary Water, Waste Treatment, Research, Food Standards,

Principal Founder of Home Economics, and a Leader in APHA’s Initial Section,

the Laboratory Section Annotated to Highlight Significant Contributions and Leadership


1842 Ellen Swallow born in Dunstable Massachusetts and grows up on the family Swallow Farm. Her parents of modest means give her the best education they could afford. She evidently was a remarkably perceptive and intellectually curious child.

1864 Ellen Begins Her First Teaching Job One of the few occupations open to women. She saves money to attend college.

1868 She enters Vassar College as an advanced student and initially steers toward Astronomy, but as she is exposed to more sciences, she continues studies in Chemistry as she is influenced by faculty views to using science to find solutions to practical problems. READ MORE