Kelly McSweeney

Jan 6th 2021

MIT’s First Female Student: Ellen Swallow Richards


The first woman admitted to MIT, or any scientific institution for that matter, Ellen Swallow Richards, pioneered sanitary engineering, home economics, nutrition and environmental activism. She was the first woman in the United States to obtain a chemistry degree, and she would have pursued a Ph.D. in chemistry if women weren’t prevented from doing so at the time.

Who Was Ellen Swallow Richards?

Ellen Swallow was born to a rural family farm in Dunstable, Massachusetts, in 1842. According to Smithsonian Magazine, she was a curious child who would read ingredient labels on food to learn more about nutrition. She earned her first bachelor’s degree at Vassar College (an all-women school at the time), where she was mentored by America’s first female astronomer, Maria Mitchell. Young Ellen wanted to be a chemist, but she couldn’t find anyone willing to hire a woman for such a position or any schools that accepted women for advanced science degrees. She was able to attend MIT as a “special student.” She was accepted to show that women couldn’t handle higher learning, according to Smithsonian Magazine, and she was isolated from her cohort in a solitary lab.

A Groundbreaking Chemistry Career

Despite these challenges, she earned a bachelor’s degree (her second) from MIT, plus a master’s degree from Vassar. She continued studying at MIT for two more years and applied to the doctoral program but was rejected because they did not award doctoral degrees to women at the time. She married Robert Hallowell Richards, chairman of MIT’s mining engineering department, and he supported her research, according to the New York Historical Society.

Ellen Swallow Richards taught chemistry at MIT from 1873 to 1878, although the university did not give her a salary or a title. She was recognized as a professor in 1879, but she still worked for free, according to the American Chemical Society. She advocated for more women in research and opened the Women’s Laboratory where 23 women, mostly local teachers, joined her scientific pursuits.

Eventually, MIT warmed up to the idea of women in science, and her Women’s Lab closed. She was appointed assistant chemist of the nation’s first laboratory of sanitary chemistry in 1883. There, she studied water quality and sewage treatment, an emerging field at the time. While water testing is standard today, the concept of water quality was new when Richards participated in this research and analyzed 40,000 samples. Through this work, she helped set the stage for future pioneering women in STEM, such as environmental actistist Rachel Carson.

According to Smithsonian Magazine, Richards led a study of Massachusetts’ food supply, in which her lab examined packaged food and discovered that it wasn’t as pure as the labels suggested. She was a champion of domestic science, the precursor to home economics. She studied the science of baking and how science and technology concepts applied to homemaking in general.

A Powerful Voice (With a Limited Viewpoint)

Like many early activists, she advanced important causes but was not inclusive. Her work focused on advancing women like her — white middle-class housewives, according to Smithsonian Magazine.

Despite her limited views, she was one of the early pioneering women in stem who advocated for advancing women’s education and careers. She pushed the boundaries of what was possible for women at scientific institutions, and her hard work proved that women’s contributions were essential for the advancement of science.