Ellen Swallow Richards

By Admin
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In the town of Dunstable, Massachusetts, a safety and industrial engineer and an environmental chemist was born on December 3, 1842. She is considered the pioneer of home economics as she laid its foundation through experimentations in domestic science. Born to Fanny Gould Taylor and Peter Swallow, Ellen was their only child and came from modest means. In the early years of her life, Ellen was home schooled until she moved to Westford where she attended the Westford Academy.

Ellen Swallow in 1868, attended Vassar College and graduated with a Master’s degree with research on the chemical analysis of iron ore. She was the first female to be accepted by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where she continued her studies and later on taught there as well. Ellen married Robert H. Richards in June 1875 who was the chairman of MIT’s Mining Engineering Department and with his support Ellen continued to work at MIT.

 Even though Ellen’s first job was as an unpaid chemistry teacher at MIT, she did not give up and became an instructor at her professor’s William Nicholas’ lab Lawrence Experiment Station in 1884. She became a consulting chemist and later a nutritional expert for US Agricultural Department.

Pioneer of Sanitation Engineering

Ellen S. Richards, best known for her pioneering work in sanitation engineering was also the first professional female chemist.  In 1890, her extensive research led to the pathway of establishing the first quality standards of her nation after she analyzed more than 40,000 samples of sewage water. Ellen Swallow Richards was the first female to be elected by the American Institute of Mining and Metallurgic Engineers. She improved a lot of methods and contributed to a number of disciplines like wastewater, sanitation, plumbing, nutrition and even ventilation in industrial spaces through her work in the labs and through her research.

In 1875, she gained funds to establish a women’s laboratory in MIT. She published an article titled, “The Chemistry of Cooking and Cleaning” in 1881 followed by a number of articles. Ellen was appointed as a sanitary chemist instructor at MIT and held the position till her death.

In 1890, she launched a kitchen which offered food at low cost that was scientifically prepared and offered public demonstrations.  Even though this kitchen failed, various similar kitchens were launched nationwide, the most famous being the Rumford Kitchen and school lunch programs were accepted all across the country.

Ellen wrote a number of books and articles in her lifetime and in 1899, along with Melvil Dewey organized meetings in Lake Placid that laid the foundation of home economics.  She also funded and helped in the launch of Journal of Home Economics. In the last decade before her death, Ellen wrote many scientific papers and published 10 books. In 1910, she was appointed at the National Education Association where she supervised the teaching methodology being taught to students of home economics.  In the same year she received an honorary degree of PhD. Ellen was very ambitious and active that she even presented a paper on the cost of living 4 days before her death.Ellen Swallow Richards passed away on March 30, 1911 after suffering from angina. She is buried in her family cemetery in Maine.

About Ayerah Asim:Ayerah Asim is pursuing her Master’s in Environmental Sciences at Forman Christian College University. In her continuing research she is working on membrane bioreactors.



Ellen H. Swallow Richards. (n.d.). Chemistry in History. Retrieved from http://www.chemheritage.org/discover/chemistry-in-history/themes/public-and-environmental-health/public-health-and-safety/richards-e.aspx.



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