Ellen H. Richards (1842-1911), a chemist and leader in applied science, was instrumental in creating the field of home economics and in broadening opportunities for women in science education.
Peter and Fanny Swallow valued a good education, and they instilled in their only child Ellen ("Nellie") a passion for learning and meticulous attention to detail that later became the foundation for her life's work. Ellen Richard's parents met while attending New Ipswich Academy in New Hampshire and after their marriage, Peter Swallow combined teaching with farming. Born on the Swallow family farm in Dunstable, Massachusetts, on December 3, 1842, Richards, described as a tomboy, helped with the farm work from an early age. Though her father was said to have taken a keen interest in the way household tasks were performed, it was under the tutelage of her "deft and dainty" mother that she became proficient at housework, earning prizes as a 13-year-old at the country fair for an embroidered handkerchief and the best loaf of bread.
Richards was educated largely at home by her teacher-parents until 1859 when her father moved the family to Westford, Massachusetts. There, she assisted with her father's new business venture, the village store, and attended Westford Academy, studying, among other things, mathematics and Latin—subjects in which she later tutored to earn money for college. To enlarge his business, her father moved the family to nearby Littleton in 1863; while Richards focused her energy on assisting him in the store and fulfilling the social obligations of small town life, she remained determined to further her education. Though she taught school hoping to save money to attend college, her mother was often ill and caring for her frequently took precedence over teaching. "I am the same Nellie as of old," she wrote in 1865 to her cousin Annie, "full of business, never seeing a leisure hour, never finding time to study or read half as much as I want." Managing to attend lectures in Worcester during the winter of 1865-66, she had set her sights on receiving a higher education, only to find few doors open to ambitious women at that time. No colleges in New England were open to women (the two well-known women's colleges, Wellesley and Smith, were founded some ten years later), and Vassar, while a women's college, was so new that it was only just beginning to build a reputation. Frustrated by the seeming impossibility of realizing her goal, Richards experienced a period of ill health and deep depression: "I lived for over two years in Purgatory… . I was thwarted and hedged in on every side." Finally, in September 1868, at the age of 25, she entered Vassar College as a special student. The following year, she was admitted to the senior class.
A conscientious and enthusiastic student, Richards excelled at Vassar as her natural interest in science was encouraged and influenced by astronomer Maria Mitchell, the most important woman scientist in 19th-century America and one of the first women professors of science. It was, however, another Vassar scientist, chemistry professor Charles A. Farrar, whose influence ultimately led her into chemistry and developed in her the idea, advanced for the time, that science should help in the solution of practical problems.
After graduation, she had intended to teach in Argentina, but when war broke out there, she decided to continue her studies; again, however, she found opportunities limited. She wrote to a friend: "I have quite made up my mind to try Chemistry for a life study and have been trying to find a suitable opportunity to attempt it…. But everything seems to stop short at some blank wall." Then, in December 1870 good news arrived: Richards was accepted to the five-year-old Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, the first woman admitted to that school, and, as she said, "as far as I know, any scientific school."
Her acceptance, however, did not constitute a signal that MIT was willing to open its doors to any woman who applied (the institute didn't begin admitting women directly until 1878). The university accepted her as a special student in chemistry, without charge, not because of financial need, as she assumed, but so that the president of MIT "could say I was not a student, should any of the trustees or students make a fuss about my presence. Had I realized upon what basis I was taken, I would not have gone."
While unaware of the underlying conditions of her acceptance, she nevertheless understood the important role she played as the only woman admitted to the institute, writing in 1870: "I hope in a quiet way I am winning a way which others will keep open. 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." Three years later, she received a B.S. degree from MIT and an M.A. from Vassar. Continuing her studies at MIT for another two years, Richards never received a doctorate, because the institute—it has been said—did not want a woman to receive the school's first graduate degree in chemistry.
During her years at MIT, she worked as an assistant to Professor William R. Nichols who was engaged in water analysis, a new branch of chemistry, for the Massachusetts State Board of Health. She also met Professor Robert Hal-lowell Richards, who was developing the institute's metallurgical and mining engineering laboratories. Professor Richards proposed to Ellen Swallow, appropriately enough, in the chemistry laboratory shortly after she received her MIT degree; they were married on June 4, 1875. Both devoted scientists, Professor Richards supported his wife's work while she helped him prepare lectures and keep up with the many scientific journals that came to their Jamaica Plains home. She also acted as her husband's chemist for a project in which he experimented with methods of concentrating copper ores. Elected to the American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers, she was its first woman member.
The late 19th century saw a shift in women's roles, with the woman's suffrage movement gaining strength, and both educational and employment opportunities increasing for middle-class women. Science, however, was still viewed as the domain of men. Richards worked to change that image and to make scientific study more accessible to other women. While an MIT undergraduate, she helped teach an experimental course in chemistry, financed by the Woman's Education Association (a fledgling group devoted to promoting better education for women), at the Girls' High School in Boston to a class composed largely of teachers.
Then in November 1875, she received funds for the establishment of a women's laboratory at MIT; the following year, the Woman's Laboratory opened under the direction of Professor John Ordway, and Richards served as his assistant. The Woman's Education Association provided money for the laboratory apparatus, books, and scholarships, while Richards personally donated $1,000 annually for the seven years of the laboratory's existence. Clearly, not everyone at MIT supported the notion of women studying science; another MIT graduate recalled that the laboratory was "a sort of contagious ward located in what we students used to call the 'dump'." Nevertheless, Richards persisted, trying to provide her students with the individual attention required to learn the laboratory techniques that had been omitted during their previous education; she was also the unofficial "dean of women" at the Woman's Laboratory and, throughout her career at the institute, she made certain that these pioneering women did not in the words of one student, "do anything to give any setback to the status of women students at the Institute."
During her years at the Woman's Laboratory, Richards began stressing the importance of chemistry to the homemaker. Her consulting work for private industry included testing wallpapers and fabrics for arsenic, and she also looked at the adulteration of staple groceries for the State Board of Health while having her students in qualitative analysis assist in testing common household articles and cleaning materials. As a result of these efforts, in 1881 she published The Chemistry of Cooking and Cleaning which was followed in 1885 by Food Materials and Their Adulterations. Keenly aware of the lack of science education for middle-class women at home, in September 1876 she became head of the science section for the Society to Encourage Studies at Home, a correspondence school for women.
After MIT began admitting women directly in 1878, thus lessening the need for a separate Woman's Laboratory, Richards was suddenly out of a job. When the laboratory closed its doors in 1883, she wrote: "I feel like a woman whose children are all about to be married and leave her alone." But the feeling didn't last long. The following year, she was appointed an instructor of sanitary chemistry in MIT's new sanitation laboratory—probably the first such laboratory in the nation—and held the position until her death some 27 years later. In the sanitation laboratory, she assisted MIT professors in analyzing the state's water samples for the board of health, a monumental undertaking that became a classic in the field of sanitation and led to her position at MIT teaching the analysis of water, sewage, and air.
Richards's conviction, as stated by former pupil Dr. Alice Blood, "that if people knew better, they would do better," served as her driving force while seeking the practical application of scientific knowledge. In the late 19th century, this credo led her to concentrate on what came to be known as the home economics movement for which she coined the term "euthenics"—the "science of the controllable environment." In 1890, she opened the New England Kitchen which offered scientifically prepared food for home consumption at a low cost, with the cooking area open to the public for demonstration purposes. Though the New England Kitchen proved a failure, it led to other successful projects, including an exhibit at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. The exhibit, "Rumford Kitchen," offered nutritious and scientifically prepared lunches to visitors for 30 cents. Again, the cooking area was open to the public, and food values—protein, fat, carbohydrates, and calories—were computed and noted on the bills of fare, a practice not followed by restauranteurs until nearly 100 years later. This interest led to Richards's work with the Boston School Committee, which in 1894 contracted with the New England Kitchen to prepare school lunches. Soon considered an expert on the subject of school lunches, she was consulted by other school systems, as well as other institutions, for information regarding food and nutrition. Her work laid the foundation for the now nationally accepted school lunch program and helped create the field of dietetics as a vocation for women. Among her many books and articles are pamphlets written for the Department of Agriculture on nutrition and food chemistry.
In 1899, together with Melvil Dewey, director of the New York State Library and author of the "Dewey Decimal System" of book classification, Richards organized the first meeting of diverse individuals interested in what became known as home economics. As chair of these summer conferences in Lake Placid, New York, she helped determine the shape and objectives of this emerging field while developing model curricula. In 1908, at its tenth conference, the group formed the American Home Economics Association and elected Richards its first president, a position she held until 1910 when she insisted on retiring. She also helped found, and finance, the Journal of Home Economics.
During the last 15 years of her life, she was a prolific writer, publishing ten books and many scientific papers and magazine articles, and was in demand as a lecturer and consultant. Appointed to the council of the National Education Association in 1910, she was charged with supervising the methods of teaching home economics in schools.
Described by a colleague as "[s]mall, compactly built, and absolutely unafraid," Richards was a fighter. As one student recalled: "Mrs. Richards carried out in her own household all the principles of home economics which she was so vigorously and effectually promulgating." Her home was always open to her students. In addition to her work with the women students at MIT, in 1882 Richards was one of the founders of the Association of Collegiate Alumnae, later the American Association of University Women, and was a leader in the group's efforts to broaden women's opportunities for graduate education and develop physical education classes in colleges. She helped organize a school of housekeeping at the Woman's Educational and Industrial Union in Boston in 1899, which later became the department of home economics at Simmons College. In 1910, she received an honorary degree of doctor of science from Smith College and served as a trustee of Vassar.
Ellen Richards was active until the end of her life. Four days before her death, she presented a paper for the Baptist Society Union entitled, "Is the Increased Cost of Living a Sign of Social Advance?" She died at her Boston home on March 30, 1911, and is survived by the numerous home economics schools and clubs named for her and fellowships awarded in her name.
Hunt, Caroline L. The Life of Ellen H. Richards. American Home Economics Association, 1912, reprinted, 1980.
Journal of Home Economics. June 1911, October 1911, June 1929, December 1931, December 1942.
Rossiter, Margaret W. Women Scientists in America, Struggles and Strategies to 1940. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.