Ellen Swallow Richards (1842-1911)


Environmentalist Ellen Swallow Richards introduced the word ecology to the United States in 1892. Richards was home-schooled by her parents, both teachers, and studied at Vassar College, where she became interested in chemistry. She was particularly interested in environmental problems caused by urbanization. She was the first woman admitted to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she earned a second bachelor’s degree. She attempted to obtain her graduate degree, but was not allowed to do so because she was a woman. At her request in 1875, the Women's Education Association of Boston helped establish a laboratory at MIT for the instruction of women in chemistry. The new laboratory opened the following year and Richards worked as an instructor in chemistry and mineralogy in the Women's Laboratory until it closed in 1883. The following year she became an instructor in sanitary chemistry at MIT.

In addition to her work at MIT, Richards analyzed water and sewage systems for the Massachusetts Board of Health. Her research demonstrated the need for Massachusetts factory and food inspection laws, which became the first in the nation. She was also involved in the development of sanitary sewer treatment systems. Richards was the first scientist to conduct stream by stream water surveys in the United States, and she was recognized worldwide for her analyses of minerals in the earth. Her long list of achievements also includes founding the study of home economics and starting the work on the Pure Food Acts.

Although not an outspoken activist for woman suffrage, Richards viewed improvements in scientific education as a key to the progress of women and the country. Her environmental work led to an increase in women's involvement in the budding conservation movement at the turn of the twentieth century.

She taught at MIT until her death in 1911.



Additional Resources:

Web Sites:

Works Cited: