USA Science and Engineering Festival: The Blog

–Through her studies of air, water and food quality in the Industrial Age, she introduced the word “ecology” to the U.S. lexicon as early as 1892

–First woman admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and first American woman to earn a degree in chemistry

Ellen Swallow Richards (1842-1911), who introduced the word ecology in the United States in 1892, was an early and far-seeing exponent of that science. She was also the first woman student—and later professor—at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the first American to earn a degree in chemistry. Raised on a Massachusetts farm, Ellen was sporadically schooled until she made her way to Vassar College, where she first planned to follow in the footsteps of astronomer Maria Mitchell. But instead she chose to concentrate on chemistry, and in the early 1870s she studied at MIT. There her interest in the environmental problems associated with rapid urbanization during the Industrial Age led her to pioneer the field of sanitary engineering. Ellen also made important contributions to industrial chemistry, metallurgy and home economics. She was also a feminist, as well as a founding ecofeminist who believed that women’s involvement within the home was a vital aspect of the economy, but was also pragmatic in this regard. Said she: “You cannot make women contented with cooking and cleaning and you need not try.”

To read the full biography of Ellen Swallow Richards and other role models in science and engineering, click here.


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