Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Mrs. E.H. Swallow Richards

The fact that Ellen Henrietta Swallow Richards earned a place in my top 5 women chemists is not because of her scientific achievements, but because of her importance for the acceptation of women in the acedemic world in the 19th century.

She studied at the Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, and obtaind a B.S. degree in 1870. She was accepted at the MIT as a student in chemistry, but was not charged tuition so MIT could say that she was not a real student. She submittet work on the analysis of iron ore to Vassar for wich she received a master's degree. She graduated in 1873 with a second B.S degree but MIT would not award her a doctorate, because they did not want to give their first doctorate in chemistry to a woman (said her husband later).

In 1875 she married MIT's mining engineering Professor Robert Hallowell Richards. She raised funds to open the Woman’s Laboratory at MIT where she worked as an assistant director. She introduced biology to MIT's curriculum and founded the oceanographic institute, known as Woods Hole.

Her first official appointment was as an instructor of sanitair chemistry. Her studies resulted in the first state water standards. She wrote more than 15 book including : The chemistry of cooking and cleaning;: A manual for housekeepers (1882). (The connection between cooking and chemistry has been a favourite topic for books and collumns again lately.)

In 1910 she finally was awarded a Ph.D. degree (honorary) by Smith College. A year later she died of a heart disease at the age of 68.


Russ said...

I find the statement "She raised funds to open the Woman’s Laboratory at MIT where she worked as an assistant director." a bit funny.

It reminds me of the Simpsons episode, where Homer starts an internet company and gives himself the title "Junior Vice President"

een of andere vent said...

Even more funny: The person in charge of the Women's laboratory was a man.

Russ said...

I suspected the case would be something like that.

I recently did a little browsing on the subject of women in chemistry from days gone by. It seems that a lot of them actually worked with their husbands, which raises an interesting issue. Do you think the women were the brains in the operation, and they needed a man to legitimize their results, or even their presence in a university setting, or on the other hand were they ridinig the coattails of their husbands?

I'd kind of like to think the former.

een of andere vent said...

I think the former as well. Swallow must have been a very inelligent lady, and had to cope with a society where women were regarded as unsuited for an academic career. She became assistant director without salary. Without the help of progressive men she would not have been able to make this career. She wrote books about chemistry and cooking and housekeeping, so perhaps she still had to surrender to female stigma.

The end of 19th century was a very narrow minded time regarding emancipation (slavery had just been banned, to put things in context). I think Marie Curie was the first female scientist that was regarded fully fledged. I do not know how important her husband was initially for her acceptance or maybe even the fact that she was not American.

Jordan said...

There is a plaque in memory of Ellen Swallow Richards at MIT. If memory serves, it's at the south end of Building 4, on the main floor. Maybe someone who's at MIT currently can confirm.

Em said...

its still there!