WoW Blog (Woman of the Week) Blog

WoW Blog (Woman of the Week)

Each week this blog will feature a prominent woman who made significant contributions to engineering or science. If you have any women you'd like us to feature please let us know and we'll do our best to include them.

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Ellen Swallow Richards (December 3, 1842 – March 30, 1911)

Posted March 26, 2007 1:27 PM by julie

Ellen Swallow Richards was the most prominent female industrial and environmental chemist in the United States during the 19th century. Richards was the first woman admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (and its first female instructor), the first woman in the United States to be accepted to any school of science and technology, and the first American woman to earn a degree in chemistry. She was also the first scientist to conduct stream-by-stream water surveys in the United States, and a founder of ecology in America.

As an undergraduate at Vassar College, Ellen Swallow Richards studied both astronomy and chemistry. Upon graduation, she applied for several industrial chemistry positions, but was turned down. At the urging of her professors, she then applied to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she was admitted as a special student. Richards received a B.S. from MIT and a Master's degree from Vassar. She continued at MIT in the hope of earning a doctorate, but MIT would not award its first doctorate to a woman until 1886. While at MIT, Richards was so meticulous and diligent that she took charge of the lab work for one of the school's most important projects, analyzing tens of thousands of water samples from streams and rivers all over the state. Her pioneering work in environmental and sanitary engineering would eventually cause her to be known "the woman who founded ecology."

As Richards once said, "the environment that people live in is the environment that they learn to live in, 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." Through her efforts, the Women's Laboratory at MIT was opened in 1876. Although Professor John M. Ordway was in charge, Ellen Swallow Richards played an important role. She held the position of instructor in chemical analysis, industrial chemistry, mineralogy, and applied biology until the lab closed in 1883.

From 1884 until her death in 1911, Richards was an instructor in sanitary chemistry at MIT. While in this position, she surveyed the quality of inland bodies of water in Massachusetts, many of which were already polluted with industrial waste and municipal sewage. The survey led to the first state water-quality standards in the nation and the first modern municipal sewage treatment plant, in Lowell, Massachusetts. She also acted as a consultant to government and industry. In addition, Richards co-founded the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, where oceanography was developed.

Among her many accomplishments, Ellen Swallow Richards' research demonstrated the need for Massachusetts factory and food inspection laws, the first in the nation. She was also involved in the development of sanitary sewer treatment systems. Richards was an early example of the many American women who adopted conservation and environmental causes during the Progressive era.

http://www.chemheritage.org/classroom/chemach/environment/richards.html

http://libraries.mit.edu/archives/exhibits/esr/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ellen_Swallow_Richards

http://www.runet.edu/~wkovarik/envhist/richards.html

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#1

Re: Ellen Swallow Richards (December 3, 1842 – March 30, 1911)

03/29/2007 9:50 AM

It would be interesting to go back and review the policy debates that surrounded the passage of the nation's first water-quality standards. I imagine that there was some politician who said that water pollution was the "greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people".

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Re: Ellen Swallow Richards (December 3, 1842 – March 30, 1911)

03/29/2007 1:03 PM

I'm sure you're right, especially since the scientific testing behind it was done by a woman at a time when women's presence in science and technology was highly unusual to say the least!

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#3

Re: Ellen Swallow Richards (December 3, 1842 – March 30, 1911)

10/19/2013 9:44 AM

I wonder if her intellectual pursuits were born out of relentless taunting, (over her name), as she was growing up.

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