Badass Scientist of the Week: Ellen Swallow Richards
Ellen Swallow Richards (1842–1911) was the most prominent female American chemist of the 19th century, and a pioneer in sanitary engineering. Her family was relatively poor, so she had to work to save enough money to attend Vassar College. She earned earned a Bachelor of Science in 1870, and was most attracted to astronomy (as a pupil of Maria Mitchell) and chemistry. After being rejected by various industrial chemists, she instead applied to MIT and soon became their first female student. She received her second bachelor’s degree, then a master’s from Vassar, and continued with hopes of earning a doctorate from MIT. Although MIT would not award doctorates to women until 1886, Richards perservered, establishing a Women’s Laboratory and becoming an (unpaid) instructor in chemistry and mineralogy. When MIT opened the nation’s first laboratory of sanitary chemistry, she was appointed its instructor. Around this time, Richards also undertook a survey of the pollution Massachusetts’ water supplies, and from this the first water quality standards were born. She served as a water analyst for the State Board of Health as well as working as an instructor at MIT, and she was primarily concerned with both public health and applying scientific ideas of domestic ideas—she believed that having good nutrition, proper clothing, fitness, sanitation and efficiency would give women more time to pursue interests other than cooking and cleaning. Richards co-founded the American Association of University Women, which helps open the doors of higher education to other women even to this day, and in 1910 she was granted an honorary doctor of science degree from Vassar College. A powerful leader, a wise teacher and a tireless worker, Richards died from illness in 1911.