The singular career and contributions of Ellen Henrietta Swallow Richards (1842-1911) (continued from Front Page)


The basketful of her accomplishments, and consequential work and actions are only summarized here in this narrative and illustrated in the seminal events noted in the accompanying timeline (5) Below we give a capsule form of her life, works, and legacy in 4 periods of her life: 1. Her early Education, 2. Initial Research and allied development of Chemistry applied to water sewage contamination and purity 3. Outreach to the public, demonstration a public education in food safety, nutrition, and model programs. building a network as a public educator particularly for creating opportunities for women, 4. Her living legacy as a pioneer in forming the field of home economics, articulating concepts of environmental health and ecology.

1. Education: Ellen Swallow chose a path of firsts, and that began with her obvious abilities and capacity for learning. To realize her potential as a women set a series of challenges while facing hurdles and barriers in her path that she successively surmounted. As the first women admitted to MIT, she was supported by MIT President Runkle who informed a delighted Ellen Swallow in 1870, she is to be admitted to MIT but as a special student, with no fees. However there is a darker side as McNeill (4) records citing Robert Clarke in his biography “Ellen Swallow”, “some Faulty saw her as an experiment, that administrators thought she would fall and would show that women were not cut out for higher learning , as one observer recorded “she was put on trial for all women”, But on she moved , when rejected for a doctoral degree at MIT, McNeill writes she responded by lobbying the MIT to allow her to accept women into her own lab that she had developed. Money was raised with the help of “The Women’s Education Association, Ellen formed the Women’s Laboratory and in 1876 welcomed 23 women, mostly local teachers, into her own lab “.

2. Initial Research and allied development of Chemistry applied to sewage contamination and water purity. From her role as a first woman student, she became the first woman Laboratory Assistant when an opportunity, surfaced in 1872 (as) the Massachusetts Board of Health (established in 1869) continued to support statewide MIT studies related to sewage contamination and water purity. Under Professor William R Nichols using chemical analyses, work began on developing, applying, and reporting the results of extensive water and sewage analyses. The studies were expanded and in 1884 MIT established a separate laboratory for sanitary chemistry. It is here that Ellen Swallow Richards (married 1875) was appointed assistant to Nichols and consequently brought Richards formally into public health work principally directed to environmental sanitation. Subsequently the work was further expanded, and the resultant focus led to th landmark establishment of The Lawrence Experiment Station, tasked to “investigate the principles involved in the purification of sewage-polluted water, to determine tolerable limits of pollution and to achieve pure water and dealing with sewage” Rosen (1974). Much of the credit for the sheer volume of testing, the development of measures, and standards were attributed by Richards’ colleagues to her organizational skills and the quality of her work.

During her time in the MIT laboratories, Richards consolidated her position, and she was ultimately appointed as Instructor in Sanitary Chemistry, a title which she held for the next 27 years until her death. As Rosner (1974) significantly notes, despite the number of students, male and female, that she taught she was never promoted to the Professorial rank, though her meritorious work was widely acknowledged and over her career, her teaching across fields and among other publications and books, for example, coauthoring a text book titled “Air Water and Food From a Sanitary Standpoint” to guide students in their development of applied research skills. This too in the face of her many honors accorded externally, her subsequent work, and the expansion of her views and areas of application, her principal home institution never advanced her appointment beyond her entry level academic position.

3. Outreach to the public: demonstration projects, model programs for the public ‘s education in food safety, and nutrition, while building a network to further related career opportunities for public health advocates, particularly for creating opportunities for women. The above admittedly covers related but widely divergent fields but this was the genius and enterprise of Ellen Richardson as her career developed. Because of her fame and growing national recognition, she was called upon to apply her interest in education, science and women’s role to wider themes and innovations.

The following is one example of Richards’ career progression from science to practical application of her early work in nutrition, food, prompted by studies based on applied chemistry investigations in the Women’s Lab. Subsequently, as the Lab developed its further programs into the purity & cleanliness of foods initial studies showed extensive consumer adulteration of foods in the marketplace. The, led to the first early legislation in Massachusetts on food standards at the State level anticipating by decades the national legislation such as the Food & Drug Acts of today & the import of science applied to consumer advocacy. By 1879 Ellen has become “a recognized leading voice in the consumer right-to know movement”. (4)

With the above public recognition, of her work Richards was encouraged to expand her views & findings to a larger public audience. Based on her findings of the use of scientific principles, applied to practical tools, she held demonstration & public education programs showing the efficiency of a well-run home. At her initial public meeting she was pleasantly surprised when 300 women attended. To further public education she wrote books such as “The Chemistry of Cooking and Cleaning: A Manual for Housekeepers”, that comprised the first ever American publication containing healthful recipes. In addition, she provided model kitchen designs. Her public demonstrations included a model exhibit New England Kitchen in Boston &, later, the “Rumsford Kitchen” at the Worlds’ Columbian Expo in Chicago. Although not completely successful in persuading the poor of the advantages of low price nutritious food, she & Mary Hinman Abel ,who met at the 1889 APHA Annual Meetings, pioneered the introduction of school lunches for the needy in Boston and several other parts of the United States (1) also see the photo of the New England Kitchen and the foot note caption text at



4. Her living legacy as a pioneer in forming the field of home economics, articulating con
cepts of environmental health, and ecology.
Richards’ ideas, writing, teaching continued to evolve and coalesce particularly around the importance of humans & their reciprocal relations & interaction with their environment, Richards was an early innovator in introducing the larger view of public health in developing the umbrella concept of ecology. She continues to be credited with early on articulating the concept of ecology. She is recognized as a prime mover in developing the science of home economics. Leaving the last word to Rosen to sum up: “throughout her life, Ellen H Richards acted to advance the health of the community & the position of women in it. Especially with respect to education, occupation, and circumstances of life. Some of her goals were attained, others still remain to be achieved, but she was a pioneer who merits continuing recognition by all community health workers” (1)


1. George Rosen MD, PhD, 1972, Public Health Then and Now: Ellen Richards (1842-1911) Sanitary Chemist and Pioneer of Professional Equity for Women in. Health Science, AJPH V 64 August p. 816

2. Engineering Girl Ellen Swallow Richards Better Homes Through Engineering
National Academy of Engineering site to promote women in STEM studies

3. Science History Institute Ellen H Swallow Richards

4. Leila McNeill 2018, The First Female Student at MIT Started an All-Women Chemistry Lab and Fought for Food Safety, Smithsonian Magazine, December 18, 2018

5. Ellen Swallow Richards Timeline (2014) adopted from The Remarkable Life of Ellen Swallow Richards: Pioneer in Science and Technology Pamela Curtis Swallow John Wiley &Sons Inc

6. quotefancy website, Ellen Swallow Richards Quotes

Additional Sources

CEA Winslow DrPH, (1953) There Were Giants in Those Days, AJPH Volume 43¬¬¬ June part 2 p45

California State Los Angeles–Ellen Swallow Richards Superwoman of Sanitary Chemistry Undated PowerPoint Presentation

Elizabeth D Robinson, PhD (1974) A Tribute to Women Leaders in the Laboratory Section of the American Public Health Association AJPH October 1974 Vol 64 No 10 pg. 1006