Ellen as an Environmentalist

Ellen Swallow Richards:


Foremost Female Environmental Leader: Founder of Home Economics

By:  Ranae L. Aspen


The leader described for this final paper is Ellen Swallow Richards. Addressed in this paper will be her accomplishments as an Environmental Leader and a pioneer in the area of Home Economics.  Also, there will be an analysis of her leadership skills.  Finally, the current environmental issues that were relevant in the time of Ellen Swallow Richards’ will be outlined.  The beginning will be a short biography to explain the relevance of her childhood and the connection to her leadership in the vital areas of water, air and soil conservation.



Ellen Swallow Richards was born on December 3, 1842.  She was informally educated by her parents who themselves were teachers.  Ellen then went on to further her education at Vasser College in the area of chemistry. Chemistry was a study that Ellen felt would help to solve such issues as poor water quality, poor sanitation and poor nutrition.  Upon the completion of her studies at Vasser, she was the first female admitted to M.I.T.  The condition of her gender was that she be admitted as a “special” student.  This classification of “special” spoke to the masses that due to her being female, she was “special” and not taken seriously.  Gradually, through her studies and recorded findings, Ellen was taken seriously.  From 1873 until 1878, Ellen taught chemistry at M.I.T. without salary.   This in itself proves the passion Ellen had for the academic area she practiced.  Ellen helped to establish the Women’s Laboratory that opened in 1876. (ACS Chemistry for Life,  “Ellen H. Swallow Ricards (1842-1911) Women’s Advocate”, Sanitation Engineering Pioneer “http://portal.acs.org/ retrieved 11/11/2011).  The areas of environmental concern to Ellen were air quality, groundwater, soil and food.

During the course of Ellen’s education and practice, she recognized the need for females to be able to conduct research.  With her help and cooperation from MIT, the Women’s Laboratory was established in 1876 with 23 students and operated for seven years.  After closing the lab, the science curriculum was incorporated into the regular curriculum.  This closing was significant in that it continued under the name of Kidder laboratories and all were admitted without limiting women because of their sex.  Her contributions to science and the field of environmental and ecological studies were significant.  The barriers to her success seemed from an outward perspective to be that of her gender.  Ellen Swallow Richard’s felt so strongly about the course of environmental studies that she determined quietly not to allow the gender issue to be an issue at all, she worked around it even if it meant receiving little if any recognition from salary or not being placed into a position of power.  Through her compassion and accomplishments, she was recognized both in her era as well as in the current study of Family Consumer Science and Education.   Joyce Beery-Miles, Author and Historian, has a complete biography of Ellen Swallow Richards at http://ellenswallowrichards.com/. It is with great gratitude for the information provided by Ms. Beery-Miles this for this writing describing a true pioneer in the field of domestic environmental leadership.

Description of Environmental Studies Conducted by Ellen Swallow Richards 

          In 1883, M.I.T opened the nation’s first laboratory of sanitary chemistry.  Richards analyzed as many as 40,000 water samples and this work moved Richards into the position of instructor and her assistance conducted a water-quality survey of Massachusetts’ inland water bodies. The scale of the survey was unprecedented and resulted in the first modern municipal sewage treatment plant in Lowell, Massachusetts.” (http://portal.acs.org/portal/acs/corg/content?_nfpb=true&page retrieved 11/11/2011)

After 1890, Ellen’s interests began to focus on what was to become the study of Home Economics movement.  This involved the study of nutrition, food preparation, household sanitation and hygiene.  All of these related subjects could be taught in the public school system and could be said to be a kind of domestic-science literacy program for the masses. (http://www.bookrags.com/ , retrieved 10/27/2011).

In 1893, the World Fair exhibit known as the Rumford Kitchen was an out growth of the applications and principles of chemistry to the science of cooking.  The exhibits purpose was to look at the area of domestic sciences rendered important by Count Rumford and to serve as an incentive to further work in the same direction.  Ultimately, the Rumford Kitchen exhibit “stood for the application of science to the preparation of food.” (Harvard University-Collection Development Department, Widener Library, HCL/The Rumford Kitchen leaflets. 1899. Boston:  Rockwell and Churchill Press, 1899).   The examination of this exhibit is proof that the disciplined leadership Ellen Swallow Richards brought to this working laboratory show cased  theories behind the chemistry and science of cooking.  These theories have carried into the practical application of nutrition and food safety as we practice today in the field of Consumer Science and Education.  It is a fair assumption after examining the outcomes of the exhibit the elements of the findings are present in today’s society and the academics of domestic science.  A prime example of this would be the study of food borne illness and the related teaching of food safety both in homes as well as within the food industry as a whole.          


Ellen Swallow Richards understood that one of her major responsibilities within MIT was to foster the scientific education of American Women.  She was quoted at the 1899 First Lake Placid Conference as stating “It has been recognized that the home cannot adjust itself of the rapidly changing conditions of modern times without the help from trained people working through the only medium, the school; hence the importance of placing courses in Home Economics on a sound educational and scientific bass.”    She went on to say; “The quality of life 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.” The two quotes speak volumes as to the continued effect of her studies on current issues within the curriculum area of Family Consumer Science and Education.  The relevant issues today that continue to be addressed within family units and society as a whole hinge on those initial pioneering studies of air, water, soil and public sanitation issues.

Leadership Accomplishments:

Ellen Swallow Richards in collaboration with A.G. Woodman published, Air, Water and Food from a Sanitary Standpoint, in 1900.  The textbook taught the importance of public sanitation.  Ms. Richards was influential in the chlorination of drinking water to kill pathogenic bacteria. This was a critical practice to lower the high death rates that were being caused by drinking unsanitary water in most towns and cities in this time frame.  (http://www.bookrags.com/ , retrieved 10/27/11).  This publication is still influential today.  MEECS published a timeline of important events in water history.   Ellen Richards is cited for publishing the classic text in sanitary engineering.  She was a pioneer in this area and the effectiveness of her findings is in practice in society today.  In a speech given by Anthony d. Cortese, ScD at the Annual Thomas R. Camp Lecture of the Boston Society of Civil Engineers in Boston Massachesetts, March 31, 1998, there were a lot of the same ideas brought forth as previously shared by Ellen Swallow Richards.  The outlined history of civil engineering included the development of better water supplies, municipal sewer systems and wastewater treatment plants to the design of buildings to protect citizens from natural hazards. It was Ellen Swallow Richards who first suggested the implementation of chlorination to public water. (http://www.bookrags.com ,Ellen Henrietta Swallow Richards (1842-1911) American Chemist, retrieved 10/27/11). The leadership exhibited by Ellen Swallow Richards has a lot of influence on today’s study of environmental issues as well as the current study of Home Economics, which is now Family Consumer Science and Education.

Analysis of Ellen Swallow Richards as and Environmental Leader: 

Ellen Swallow Richards was a pioneer in the areas of air, water and food in the area of environmental studies.  Reviewing the concepts necessary for leadership in the area of environment, Ellen Swallow Richards is a true pioneer.  The article, “Perspectives on Environmental Leadership”, by Portugal and Yukl outlines a two dimensional framework for environmental leadership.  It describes individual and organizational as well as the internal and external influences that make leadership effective.  The following chart utilizes the chart in the article with the addition of the internal boxes and external boxes that have been filled with examples cited in articles with regard to Ellen Swallow Richards and her style of leadership.

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