Ellen H. Swallow Richards
March is Women’s History month, honoring women such as Ellen Swallow Richards, American chemist who in 1876 created the Woman's Laboratory at MIT where women could learn the rudiments of science.
The most prominent female American chemist of the 19th century, Ellen H. Swallow Richards (1842–1911) was a pioneer in sanitary engineering and a founder of home economics in the United States.
Coincidentally, in the same year MIT opened the nation’s first laboratory of sanitary chemistry (1884), she was appointed as an instructor. In 1887, at the request of the Massachusetts State Board of Health, Richards and her assistants performed a survey of the quality of the inland bodies of water of Massachusetts, many of which were already polluted with industrial waste and municipal sewage. The scale of the survey was unprecedented: it led to the first state water-quality standards in the nation and the first modern municipal sewage treatment plant, in Lowell, Massachusetts. From 1887 to 1897 Richards served as official water analyst for the State Board of Health while continuing as an instructor at MIT—the rank she held at her death. She and her colleague A. G. Woodman wrote a classic text in the field of sanitary engineering: Air, Water, and Food from a Sanitary Standpoint (1900).
Visit Chemistry in History to learn more about Ellen Swallow Richards.
Excerpted with permission, Chemical Heritage Foundation