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Ellen Swallow Richards: The "Science of Right Living"

[ photo: Ellen Swallow Richards ]

The "Science of Right Living"

Ellen Swallow Richards, Vassar class of 1870, didn't actually coin the term "ecology," but she might as well have. She came across an article written by German biologist Ernst Haekels in which he proposed terms for new scientific fields he thought needed to be developed. His term okologie described exactly the kinds of questions that Richards was already investigating, questions about the relation between people and their environment. She wrote to him and asked permission to use the term and develop the science of ecology. He replied that since he was busy developing zoology, she ought by all means to go forward with ecology. So for all intents and purposes, Richards is the founder of ecology.

Over the course of her career, Richards racked up an astonishing number of firsts. She was the first woman admitted to study at M.I.T. (even though she was required to study separately from the male students and work in her own segregated laboratory), the first woman in the U.S. to earn a B.A. in chemistry, and the first woman appointed to the faculty at M.I.T. She was the first scientist to conduct water surveys in the U.S., which led to the first state water-quality standards in the nation and the first modern municipal sewage treatment plant.

This remarkable woman created the Women's Laboratory at M.I.T. and talked wealthy Boston society women into footing the bill for it so that other women, especially teachers, could study science. Eventually, M.I.T. caved to the pressure and began to admit women into its regular programs. They never granted Richards the Ph.D., but they did finally officially hire her as their first woman faculty member in 1882, and she helped develop a new curriculum in air, water, and sewage chemistry.

The American Association of University Women? She co-founded it. Woods Hole? Co-founder. The New England Kitchen, offering low-cost and nutritious food to working class families as well as instruction in food preparation, opened in Boston under her direction, as did the Rumford Kitchen at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Richards established the discipline of "home economics" as a field of study - organized a summer conference in Lake Placid, New York, to hammer out the standards for teacher training and to devise the curriculum, cocreated the American Home Economics Association, and served as its first president. Today, we tend to dismiss home economics as a serious discipline, but that's partly because Richards was so successful in accomplishing her goals of establishing widespread norms for health, nutrition, and sanitation. She had "faith in science as a cure-all" and believed that the application of scientific principles to domestic life would ameliorate living conditions, especially for the working class. "The quality of life," wrote Richards, "depends upon the ability of society to teach its members how to live in harmony with their environment--defined first as family, then the community, then the world and its resources."