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Happy Birthday, Ellen!

I should have posted this yesterday but wasn’t able to…so this is a belated birthday celebration for Ellen Swallow Richards. Thanks again to Penny Richards for sending along the following information.

December 3, 1842–birthdate of Ellen Swallow Richards (1842-1911), first woman admitted to study at MIT.
She was a chemist; she was also married to the head of the mining engineering department. She worked to establish the Women’s Laboratory at MIT (1876-1883), and had an (unpaid) instructor’s position teaching chemistry courses. She was the official water analyst for the Massachusetts State Board of Health, 1887-1897, performing water quality studies and recommending municipal sewage treatment and water-quality standards. She was also a consultant to the Manufacturers Mutual Fire Insurance Co., for whom she tested combustibility of commercial oils. She co-authored one of the classic texts in sanitary engineering, _Air, Water, and Food from a Sanitary Standpoint_ (1900). She was also a founder (and first president) of the American Home Economics Association (1908), and a founder of the AAUW.

Learn more about Ellen Swallow Richards at:
Her wikipedia entry.
Ellen Richards and the Progressive Women’s Reform Movement
A bio at chemheritage.org
MIT online archive about the Women’s Laboratory
Here’s an excerpt from the wikipedia entry:

Born (to Fanny Taylor and Peter Swallow) to an old Dunstable, Massachusetts family of modest means which prized education, Ellen Swallow taught, tutored, and cleaned for years, finally saving $300 to enter Vassar College in 1868, earning her bachelor’s degree two years later. After failing to find suitable employment as an industrial chemist after graduation, she entered MIT to continue her studies, “it being understood that her admission did not establish a precedent for the general admission of females” according to the records of the meeting of the MIT Corporation on December 14, 1870. Three years later she received a Bachelor of Science degree from MIT for her thesis Notes on Some Sulpharsenites and Sulphantimonites from Colorado, as well as a Master of Arts degree from Vassar for a thesis on the chemical analysis of iron ore. She continued her studies at MIT and would have been awarded its first doctoral degree, but MIT balked at granting this distinction to a woman, and did not award its first doctorate until 1886.

So. Yes. Imagine how I felt as a graduate student at MIT, where I first learned about Ellen Swallow Richards. My graduate institution had refused to award her the degree she had earned, because it didn’t want its first doctorate to go to a woman. I have to tell you, every time I am reminded of this injustice, it pisses me off all over again.
Why are there no great women scientists/engineers? There are, dammit! You just refuse to award us degrees, hire us, give us equal lab space, recognize our work.
But things are so much better today at MIT. Just ask Alla Karpova.

Categories: Role Models
  1. December 4, 2006 at 4:32 pm

    When I was a female graduate student in the sciences at MIT, I always paused to view the old pictures in Killian which showed the early female student(s) in the labs. I was not personally ever subjected to overt discrimination as a graduate student during my studies but I did appreciate that my opportunity to study there was due to the efforts and brains of those women who broke the barriers in the 1800’s. I was dismayed by the Karpova incident and happy to see Dr. Tonnegawa step down. I was disappointed by President Hockfield’s “silence” on the matter.

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