Ellen Swallow Richards

Ellen Swallow Richards

American chemist
Date of Birth: 03.12.1842
Country: USA

Biography of Ellen Swallow Richards

Ellen Henrietta Swallow Richards, an American chemist, was born on December 3, 1842, in Dunstable, Massachusetts. She grew up in a modest family that highly valued education. Ellen attended Westford Academy, the second oldest school in Massachusetts. She also taught and tutored for several years before enrolling at Vassar College in 1868. She graduated two years later with a bachelor's degree.

Ellen Swallow Richards

After struggling to find suitable employment as an industrial chemist, Ellen became a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). However, the institution's administration was reluctant to admit her, fearing it would set a precedent for other female applicants. Despite the obstacles, she received a bachelor's degree from MIT three years later and a master's degree from Vassar College for her dissertation on the chemical analysis of iron ore.

Ellen Swallow Richards

Although she intended to pursue a doctoral degree at MIT, the university refused to grant the degree to a woman. In 1875, Ellen married Robert H. Richards, the head of the mining department at MIT. With his support, she continued to maintain ties with her alma mater and voluntarily offered her services to the institute, donating $1000 annually to create a program for female students.

In January 1876, Ellen began her longstanding collaboration with the Society to Encourage Studies at Home as an instructor, providing distance education. The same year, the Women's Education Association of Boston established a women's laboratory at MIT. Ellen became an unpaid assistant instructor in chemical analysis, industrial chemistry, mineralogy, and applied biology under the guidance of Professor John M. Ordway. In 1883, MIT started admitting women on a permanent basis and granting them scientific degrees. As a result, the women's laboratory, which had become unnecessary, was closed.

From 1884 until her death, Ellen Richards worked in the newly established sanitary chemistry laboratory at the Lawrence Experiment Station. This was the first such laboratory in the United States, led by her former professor, William R. Nichols. In 1887, under Ellen's leadership, the laboratory conducted a large-scale study on water quality in Massachusetts, collecting over 20,000 samples. This groundbreaking research was the first of its kind in the U.S. Ellen also served as a consultant on chemistry to the state board of health from 1872 to 1875 and became the official water quality analyst for the state from 1887 to 1897.

Additionally, she acted as a consultant for the Manufacturers Mutual Fire Insurance Co and authored a textbook, "Air, Water, and Food from a Sanitary Standpoint," in 1900. In 1892, Ellen introduced the term "ecology" into the English language, which originated in Germany.

Ellen had a deep interest in applying scientific principles to domestic work, including cooking, clothing, sanitation, hygiene, healthy living, and efficient home management. She wrote several influential works on these subjects, some of which went through multiple editions. Along with Marion Talbot, she founded an organization that later became the American Association of University Women (AAUW). The organization began with a meeting of fifteen women college graduates at Talbot's home in Boston on November 28, 1881. Today, the AAUW has over 100,000 members, 1,300 branches, and partnerships with 500 colleges and universities nationwide.

Ellen Richards served on the board of trustees of Vassar College for many years and was awarded an honorary doctoral degree in 1910. She passed away on March 30, 1911, at her home in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, which is now a National Historic Landmark.