Ellen Swallow Richards

By: Suzanne Fischer
December 3, 2015


ELLEN SWALLOW RICHARDS (1842–1911) fought for a place for women in science, even if it had to be “women’s science.” The first woman admitted to MIT, in 1870, she was not allowed to enroll for a Master’s degree (she already had a degree in Chemistry from Vassar) and in fact, was admitted without paying tuition so that if necessary the Institute could deny she was even enrolled. She eventually became an instructor in “sanitary chemistry” there, and created the Women’s Laboratory — and indeed the whole new field of Home Economics — as a way to legitimate her own participation in chemistry. This was absolutely a calculated strategy. “Perhaps the fact that I am not a Radical or a believer in the all powerful ballot for women to right her wrongs and that I do not scorn womanly duties, but claim it as a privilege to clean up and sort of supervise the room and sew things, etc., is winning me stronger allies than anything else,” she wrote in 1871. Her major research was on air and water quality and on the safety of commercial products. Richards gradually shifted focus towards science for the kitchen and home. She helped young settlement house women to run Boston’s New England Kitchen, teaching domestic economy to the poor, and organized a demonstration kitchen at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The home economics movement that Richards founded became a victim of its own success. For decades women in the chemistry were shunted into home ec and found it difficult to find jobs outside of domestic science laboratories. “It was the only field,” writes historian of science Margaret Rossiter, “where a woman scientist could hope to be a full professor, department chairman, or even a dean in the 1920s and 1930s.”


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Jean Luc Godard, Anna Freud, Ozzy Osbourne, Anton Webern.

READ MORE about members of the Original Decadent Generation (1834–43).


HiLo Heroes