Making Public Water Drinkable
Ellen Swallow Richards 1842-1911
Public Health Pioneer

MIT admitted Ellen Swallow as "an experiment" in 1870. Because MIT was not certain it wanted to admit women, she was not charged tuition and was identified only as a "special" student. Nevertheless, she became the first woman to graduate from MIT in 1873, and the first American woman to earn a degree in chemistry. For two more years, she worked with chemistry professor William Nichols, who was analyzing public water supplies for the Board of Health of the City of Boston.

At MIT, Ellen Swallow met and married Robert Hallowell Richards, a professor of mining engineering. Throughout their lives, they entertained and advised students at their home in Jamaica Plain. In 1875, Ellen Richards appealed to the Women's Education Association of Boston for assistance in opening a Women's Laboratory to encourage women's participation in science. The Laboratory, opened in 1876, was built beside MIT's first building in Boston's Back Bay and faced Boylston Street. In 1882, urged by Richards, MIT decided to admit female students.

From 1884 until her death, she was an instructor at MIT, teaching courses in the analysis of air, water, and sewage. Richards was one of the founders of the discipline of sanitary engineering in the United States as well as being among the few women employed as a scientist. Outside of MIT, she worked as a consultant in industrial chemistry, where she analyzed the arsenic content of wallpapers and contaminants in foods. Her astounding analysis of over twenty thousand water samples, and her work in promoting public health led to major advances in the prevention of infection and disease.

But she had another passion outside of her work at MIT. With other educational reformers of her time, many of whom had been her former students at MIT, she believed that domestic science or home economics should be taught in schools to ensure high standards of hygiene and nutrition in homes. She organized the Rumford Kitchen to demonstrate proper nutrition at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 and regularly lectured around the country on household engineering. In 1908, she was instrumental in founding the American Home Economics Association, which is still in existence today.

Ellen Swallow Richards was an extraordinary woman. From a rural town in New England, she persistently followed her dreams and became an influential scientist and contributor to the field of public health.

 Adventurous Spirit: A Story About Ellen Swallow Richards
by Ethlie Ann Vare, 1992 (available but out of print)