Ellen Swallow Richards: The First Oekologist

Courtesy of MIT Musuem

Courtesy of MIT Musuem

Ellen Swallow Richards lived at 32 Eliot Street in Jamaica Plain.

For a married woman to achieve not only bliss but also intellectual parity with her husband a hundred years ago was a remarkable accomplishment. Ellen Swallow’s love affair with Robert H. Richards was hardly one of history’s great romances, but it demonstrated that hearts and minds could be equal, rational and compatible.

Ellen Swallow, a liberated female for her day, was the first woman student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and she became a fine chemist, a crusader for good food, clean air and pure water, and the mother of “domestic science.

Robert Richards, a member of the first class at M.I.T., was a pioneer in modern metallurgy and had the perspicacity to admit science to the domestic scene. He and Nellie, as he called her, made a remarkable team.

Ellen was born in Dunstable, Massachusetts, in the hills near the New Hampshire border. Her father was a farmer-storekeeper-teacher, and after she had attended Westford Academy she herself taught for a while. By the time she was twenty-six she was sickly in health and clearly destined to be an old maid. Then, apparently in a sudden burst of determination, she pulled herself together and, with her scanty savings and borrowed money, financed her admission to Vassar College in 1868.

Vassar, which had opened only three years before, the first women’s college of consequence, revealed a new world to Miss Swallow. “Some twenty or more of the girls wear their hair flowing to their waists without any attempt at doing it up,” she wrote in her diary, a bit priggishly, at the end of her first week. “lt is not usually curly, but long and straight. It seems as if they had not yet dressed.”

Being older than other Vassar girls, and more serious, she had no time for fashion and frivolity. She worked her way to a degree by tutoring, and then decided she wanted to be a chemist. She was advised that the best and perhaps only place to study chemistry was the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, already recognized as a first-rate scientific school though it had opened the same year as Vassar, 1865.

M.I.T. was a college for men. Women were admitted to a night class in chemistry taught by Charles W. Eliot (who left the faculty in l 869 to become president of Harvard), but those who had applied for status as full-time students were rebuffed. Miss Swallow had special qualifications, however, and the Institute agreed in 1871 to take her as a special student - without fees, so she would not officially be enrolled. That suited Ellen, and within a month she wrote: “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. Even Prof. A. accords me his sanction when I sew his papers or tie up a sore finger or dust the table, etc. Last night Prof. B. found me useful to mend his suspenders which had come to grief.?

Prof. B. presumably was Bob Richards, in whose laboratory Ellen was shut up “very much as a dangerous animal” to keep her from contact with undergraduate men. He was three years younger than she and a first-year faculty member.

Richards had been born in Gardiner, Maine. His mother’s family background included the wealthy Gardiners, Tudors, and Hallowells, and his father was the son of an English merchant. He had gone to school in England, was invariably defeated by Greek and Latin, failed to get into Harvard, and was at the foot of his class at Phillips Exeter Academy when he heard about M.I.T., a new kind of college. He was one of the first seven students to enter.

M.I.T. was innovating - teaching science in the laboratory. “The method of teaching was completely new to all of us,” Richards later recalled. “We found ourselves bidding goodbye to the old learn-by-heart method, and begging to study by observing the facts and laws of nature.
“I found that this new school was teaching me nature, which I had loved and observed all my life; that I was being taught nature by direct contact and that mathematics, languages and history, were nothing but a means to an end. Having at last found out the use of books, I could not read or study enough to satisfy my craving for knowledge, experience and skill. In academic schools, I had to drag myself to my books never understanding why I must. Now I could not keep away from books, drawing board and laboratory. Education ceased to be a plague spot and became a delight.”

Richards graduated in 1868 with a degree in geology and mining engineering and immediately became an instructor. In 1871 he organized what was probably the first laboratory in the world in which ore could be processed by industrial methods.

His classmate, Joseph Revere (grandson of Paul), came in from the Revere Copper Company plant at Canton, Massachusetts, to show him how to smelt copper. That same year Richards participated in what was probably the first summer school of its kind. He and his M.I.T. students traveled on the new transcontinental railroad to mines and smelters in the western mountains in order to study methods and they brought back more than 200 bags of ore to work with in the laboratory. For thirty years Richards conducted such expeditions in all parts of the country.

To maintain the fiction that she was not a student, Ellen Swallow had been listed at M.I.T. as “not a candidate for a degree” but in 1873 she was awarded the degree of Bachelor of Science (and also an A.M. by Vassar). In the laboratory a few days later, Professor Richards asked her to become his wife. “To my everlasting joy, she decided to accept my offer,” Professor Richards wrote. They were married two years later and Nellie donned boots and a short skirt to spend the honeymoon with mining students on a trip to Nova Scotia. By buckboard and muleback, Mrs. Richards and her husband visited lead, copper, tin, silver, gold, and iron mines during succeeding summers. She was chemist for the team and she was the first woman to be elected to the American Institute of Mining Engineers. She was also elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, an unusual honor for that time.

This was a period of enormous development in mining, and Professor Richards was a consultant to such companies as the fabulous Calumet and Hecla in finding new deposits and solving processing problems. He invented machinery and wrote the definitive four-volume, 2,800-page work on ore-dressing.

New England mineral inspectors had occasionally induced gold fever in the inhabitants; Professor Richards showed their optimism to be unjustified. Discovery of gold and silver near Newburyport set people frantically to digging up pastures and resulted in the sale of a million dollars in stock. Richards demonstrated that only a shallow vein existed - not enough to pay for the mining.

At another time, Richards was persuaded to examine ore displayed by some promoters who exhibited receipts from the New York Mint indicating that they had shipped $80,000 in pure gold. Richards was suspicious and found (with a taste test) that the ore consisted of rocks covered with flour paste into which some gold dust had been introduced. With money from the sale of stock, the promoters had melted up gold coins to provide the dust as well as some genuine gold bricks to be shipped to the Mint. Pure fraud.

After her graduation from M.I.T., Ellen Swallow was appointed an assistant in chemistry and later, instructor. She wanted to get a doctorate, a degree not yet awarded by the Institute, but came up against an insurmountable academic wall. Years later, Professor Richards reflected that the faculty shrank from the prospect of letting a woman be the first doctor of science produced by M.I.T.

It was 1883 before women were admitted to M.I.T. on equal footing with men. Mrs. Richards served unofficially as their dean, while supervising a Woman’s Laboratory which was especially effective in training teachers of chemistry.

Much of her time, however, went into the study of pollution and public health hazards. Typhoid fever and other diseases were constant menaces, and the Massachusetts Board of Health commissioned an M.I.T. professor to survey sources of drinking water, many of them contaminated by sewage. Mrs. Richards did most of the laboratory work and through three decades performed thousands of analyses of water from all parts of the state.

When the world’s first comprehensive course in sanitary engineering was inaugurated, she was one of the key teachers. She also studied air pollution, examined wallpapers and textiles for arsenic, and analyzed foods for adulterants.

Years earlier when she had been a student at Vassar, Ellen had been convinced of the importance of fresh air by a professor’s demonstration that lighted candles placed in a closed container would be extinguished for lack of oxygen. She wrote (with the prevalent lack of understanding of the nature of tuberculosis): “Consumption is the result of the tight building of the present day. A fireplace is better than life insurance.”

People at that time were walling up fireplaces and installing stoves. They kept their windows closed while they slept for fear of “night air.” Mrs. Richards crusaded for good ventilation in homes and schools. She and her husband installed special ventilators in their own home in Boston. In fact, their house became a kind of laboratory for testing new ideas in cookery and homemaking.

Mrs. Richards favored education for women on general principles but she directed her energies toward improving their education in the practical application of science to home management. The creative arts, such as spinning and weaving, had been taken out of the home, leaving women with the dull drudgery of cleaning and cooking without an understanding of how domestic life could be improved. In a talk before the women of Poughkeepsie in 1879, the first of many addresses she would make throughout the country, Mrs. Richards said:

“Now it is often stated that our educational system unfits the girls for their work in life, which is largely that of housekeepers. It cannot be the knowledge that unfits them. One can never know too much of things which one is to handle… . Can a cook know too much about the composition and nutritive value of the meats and vegetables which she uses? Can a housekeeper know too much of the effect of fresh air on the human system, or the danger of sewer gas, or foul water?

“Go where you will into the country and you will find the sewing machine universal, but alas! just as much poor bread, just as much fried pork, just the same open sink drain under the kitchen window, just as the same damp, dark cellar, just as much fear of fresh air, as you would have found thirty years ago. And in the cities, how much better is it; rather, how much worse?”

With an understanding of chemistry, Mrs. Richards pointed out, women could detect and battle against adulterants in foods. She herself led a task force in collecting samples from groceries throughout Massachusetts and found, for example, baking powder that was forty-five percent starch and cinnamon that was mostly mahogany saw dust.

To demonstrate to the undernourished poor the value of inexpensive but well-prepared foods, Mrs. Richards opened in Boston a New England Kitchen which sold such dishes as fish chowder at twelve cents and mush at five cents a quart. Similar kitchens were established in Providence, in New York, and at Hull House in Chicago. Mrs. Richards argued that a dime’s worth of beans was as nutritious as twenty-five to fifty cents worth of potatoes (the Irish immigrants’ staple.) Affluent but frugal Bostonians were good customers, but the people for whom the kitchens were intended were less responsive so the facilities were given up as failures.

“Their death knell was sounded,” Mrs. Richards explained, “by the woman who said, ‘I don’t want to eat what’s good for me; I’d ruther eat what I’d ruther.’”

As a part of the Massachusetts exhibit at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, Mrs. Richards operated a “Rumford Kitchen,” named for the Yankee-born Count Rumford who had pioneered in the science of nutrition. Visitors could watch the expert preparation of food and buy 979.3 calories’ worth of baked beans, brown bread, butter, and applesauce for thirty cents.

The year before, Mrs. Richards had coined the word “oekology” (she later spelled it “ecology,” but it would not become a household word for more than half a century.) She used it to denote the science of housekeeping - ranging from dietetics to sanitary plumbing. “Oekology is the worthiest of all the applied sciences, the science which teaches the principles on which to found healthy and happy homes,’” she declared. The new word represented Ellen Richards’ continuing effort to broaden the scope and rationalize the methods of household technology. The term “domestic science” had been in use for some years - and no one did more to apply science to domestic practices than Mrs. Richards. She organized the domestic science course at the new Pratt Institute in New York and was influential in shaping such studies in other schools and colleges.

In high schools, domestic science had developed somewhat in parallel with manual training for boys; its approach was inadequate, Mrs. Richards thought. Looking backward in 1908, she said: “Ten years ago domestic science meant to most people lessons in cooking and sewing given to classes of the poorer children supported by charitable people, in order to enable them to teach their parents to make a few pennies go as far as a dollar spent in the shops. To do this, common American foods were cooked in American ways, regardless of the nationality of the children, and usually failed to please the inherited foreign tastes. But complacent philanthropists felt happy in having offered bread to the starving, as they were pictured to be, and pretty bad bread it often was, judged by European standards… .

So also the tradition of the valuelessness of a woman’s time kept the plain sewing to the front, and classes were taught seams and ruffles and cheap ornamentation in the false assumption that it was economy. As late as the St. Louis Exposition, in 1903, the work of the public schools of this country was almost without exception bad from an ethical point of view, showing waste of time and material and the inculcation of bad taste.”

It was with this view of the field that Mrs. Richards accepted an invitation in 1898 to visit Melvil Dewey at Lake Placid. Dewey, then director of the state library and of home education in New York (and inventor of the Dewey Decimal library system), needed her advice regarding “Household Science” questions to be incorporated in the New York State regents’ college entrance examinations. Out of their conversations grew the concept of “Home Economics,” the broader approach that Mrs. Richards had been seeking. A specific result was an invitation to the teachers and writers in the field to a Lake Placid Conference on Home Economics the next year. The conference, held annually, grew in size and influence under the leadership of Mrs. Richards until, meeting at Chautauqua in 1908, the participants agreed to gather again in Washington later that year to form the American Home Economics Association. Mrs. Richards was elected president and served until 1910, when she insisted on retiring.

The AHEA brought together people with many interests, such as dairying, hygiene, sociology, and economics, and promoted teaching in the field in colleges and schools; sponsored research in nutrition by the United States Department of Agriculture and other agencies and encouraged new kinds of activities by the Grange and women’s clubs. It was concerned not only with household science but also with the full range of economics of production and consumption.

Mrs. Richards’ vision continued to expand. Her first book, published in 1882, The Chemistry of Cooking and Cleaning: A Manual for Housekeepers, had been narrowly pragmatic. Through the years she dealt in a practical way with diet, shelter, food adulteration, sanitation, water, and such subjects. Her eighteenth and last book, published in 1911, was titled Conservation by Sanitation. But a volume published the previous year showed the extent of her growth. It was titled Euthenics - The Science of Controllable Environment, a Plea for Better Living Conditions as a First Step toward Higher Human Development.

Mrs. Richards conceived of Euthenics as a way of trying to improve the total environment of dealing with disease, pollution, crime, moral decay, and all the other physical and spiritual ills of civilization: “America today is wasting its human possibilities even more prodigiously than its material wealth. In the confusion of ideas resulting from the rapid, almost cancerous growth … made possible by mechanized invention, the people have lost sight of their own conception of right and wrong.

Here in America we are always locking the barn door after the horse has been stolen… . Time presses!  A whole generation has been lost because the machine ran wild without guidance.”

She believed that government and industry would have to assume responsibilities for improvements, but her hope of salvation lay in education rather than legislation. ”Evolution from within, not a dragging from the outside, even if it is in the right direction, is the right method of human development,” she asserted.

Like Oekology, Euthenics did not really catch on, although, as the decades passed, mounting social and environmental crises intensified efforts to find solutions. For a number of years Vassar College conducted a Summer Institute for Euthenics. Today there is an international Institute of Euthenics, with headquarters in Chicago. And the word is in the dictionary.

Although she had become a national figure through her crusading, Mrs. Richards continued to devote much of her time to teaching and research at M.I.T. and to helping with local problems. She was the leader in a movement to improve conditions in Boston schools where fire hazards, bad sanitation, poor ventilation, and ill-prepared lunches endangered the lives of children. She was active in other causes, one of them the efforts of the Massachusetts Cremation Society to popularize the new rational method of dealing with dead bodies. Professor Robert Richards visited crematories in other cities to study the various systems, and in Boston an oil-fired method was developed. A large pig was cremated to show that the method was effective, and Professor Richards kept some of its ashes in a toy pig on the mantel of their home.

Mrs. Richards died in 1911, at the age of sixty-eight, following a heart attack. Her ashes were buried at Gardiner, Maine, where her husband had inscribed on a stone:

“Pioneer - Educator - Scientist - An Earnest Seeker - A Tireless Worker - A Thoughtful Friend – A Helper of Mankind.”

Professor Richards lived on past his hundredth birthday. When he died in 1945 his ashes were also buried at Gardiner.

By Francis E. Wylie

Reprinted with permission from the Fall 1976 New England Galaxy. Copyright © Old Sturbridge Village, Inc. (http://www.osv.org/)

FRANCIS E. WYLIE is the author of M.I.T. in Perspective, a history of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology which was published this year. He is former chief of the Boston news bureau for Time and Life and is retired as director of public relations for M.I.T. Now engaged in writing for various magazines, he lives in Hingham, Massachusetts.