Ellen Swallow Richards, born December 3, 1842, was an American chemist whose work in industrial and environmental chemistry opened up opportunities for women in science. After graduating from Vassar College, she was the first woman admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and later MIT’s first female instructor. According to the Chemical Heritage Foundation, she was also the first woman in the United States to earn a degree in chemistry.
Ellen Henrietta was a frail, “dainty little creature,” who according to biographer Caroline Hunt, was something of a trial to her mother who wanted her to be demure and love “indoor and feminine occupations.” However, a physician told her parents that because of her frailty, they should allow her to “run freely in the open air,” so she was able to spend a great deal of time outdoors with her father on the farm. In spite of this, her education was not neglected. Both of her parents had been school teachers and until the age of thirteen educated her at home.
In 1859, the family moved to Westford, Massachusetts, where they opened a store and Ellen attended the Westford Academy. She was an excellent student and a voracious reader. In addition to the typical subjects, she studied mathematics and Latin, which lead to French and German. After a time, she was also in demand as a tutor. Throughout the 1860s, she taught school, tutored, cleaned houses and helped in her father’s store, until she was finally able to save enough money to attend college. Entering Vassar College in 1868, thanks to her previous study she was soon classified as a senior and graduated in 1870. Later that year, the faculty of MIT voted to admit her as a special student, although making it clear that this was not a change in policy on women’s admission.
At MIT, Ellen made the acquaintance of Robert Richards, a professor she began to work with when he discovered that she could read the professional journals in German. Richards was the chairman of the Mine Engineering department and together they studied mineralogy and metallurgy, but Ellen would make her name in the study of sanitary engineering and domestic science. She received a second bachelor’s degree in 1873 and continued her work to the level of a doctorate, but MIT didn’t award doctorates to women until 1886. However, Ellen continued her work at the school and with the help of Robert, now her husband, she would lay the ground work for many other women to study science.
Ellen died on March 30, 1911, and is buried in Gardiner, Maine.
Find out what else happened on December 3 in Women’s History.