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Ellen Richards (1842–1911)

Ellen Richards was a pioneering woman chemist, and one of the founders of the academic study of home economics. Ellen was the daughter of a poor Massachusetts family, and until the age of 25 she helped to financially support her family and care for her ill mother.

In 1868, she was admitted to Vassar College, where she earned a BS in 1870. She was then admitted as a "special student" (without any financial charge) to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), because the school did not want to acknowledge admitting a female student by having her pay tuition. In 1873, she received her second BS from MIT and a master's degree from Vassar, to which she had submitted a thesis on the chemical structure of iron ore. Unfortunately, gender bias prevented her from receiving a PhD, the logical culmination of her advanced studies. MIT refused to grant its first PhD in chemistry to a woman, and it was not until 1886 that MIT awarded its first doctorate in chemistry.

In 1875, she married Robert Hallowell Richards, a professor in mining engineering at MIT. In 1876, she helped to found the Women's Laboratory to encourage female participation in science, an endeavor that lasted until 1883, when women were finally allowed to enroll in MIT classes with men. Despite MIT's unwillingness to grant her a PhD, she became an MIT instructor in sanitation engineering in 1874, a position she would hold for the next 25 years.

In addition to opening doors for women at MIT, Ellen Richards left her mark on the world by helping to found the discipline of home economics. Her interest stemmed from her desire to apply scientific principles to improve domestic life within the American home. In 1899 she began organizing summer conferences at Lake Placid, New York, in order to create an institution to promote home economics to the American public. In 1908, she was successful by helping to found the American Home Economics Association (AHEA). Richards served as the AHEA's first president until her retirement in 1910.

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Other Resources

  • The Chemical Heritage Foundation, Chemical Achievers: The Human Face of the Chemical Sciences. Ellen Swallow Richards, 2000.
  • Cornell University. Mann Library. HEARTH, Home Economics Archive. HEARTH is a core electronic collection of books and journals in home economics and related disciplines. Titles published between 1850 and 1950 were selected and ranked by teams of scholars for their great historical importance.
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), MIT Institute Archives & Special Collections. Ellen Swallow Richards exhibit, 1999.