She may have invented “the science of normal lives,” but Ellen Swallow Richards’ was anything but normal.

She was the first woman in the United States to:

Be accepted into a scientific school: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Become its first instructor, and found its and the nation’s first Women’s Laboratory.

Pioneer the field of sanitary education, and home economics, and nutrition, and ecology, which she introduced to the American public as “the science of normal lives.”

More than a century before humans became cognizant of a two-way relationship with their planet, before debates about the Anthropocene epoch, pollution, resource depletion, climate change, before conscious living, wellness, and sustainable development became trendy topics.

Ellen Swallow Richards said that there was a direct link between the well-being of humans and the safety and cleanliness of their environment.

“[…]Quality of life depends on the ability of society to teach its members how to live in harmony with their environment, defined first as the family, then with the community, then with the world and its resources.”

Ellen Swallow Richards tutored, cleaned other people’s houses, and worked as a salesgirl in her father’s stores to save enough money to attend Vassar College, the first degree-granting institution of higher education for women in America. Two years later, bachelor’s degree in hand, she decided she wanted to be a chemist. No one would hire her, so she applied to MIT as a student instead.

First, she was refused, then she was refused, then she was accepted as a non-degree student, isolated from the all-male student body.

It did not matter; she got to learn and do science. When she graduated, she joined the faculty as its only female and unpaid instructor. In 1883, women were finally allowed to enroll at MIT. They studied at the Women’s Laboratory under Richards’ stewardship

In 1890, at the request of the Massachusetts State Board of Health, she performed an unprecedented water-quality survey of the state’s inland water bodies. Many were heavily polluted with sewage and industrial waste. Her research led the first state water-quality standards in the nation and the first modern municipal sewage treatment plant, in Lowell, Massachusetts.

Richards did so much more, so much else. Her lab performed food sanitation tests. She wrote the first nutrition pamphlets of the United States Department of Agriculture. She introduced the first major school lunch program in the United States and experimented with kitchens that would feed people the scientifically cheapest and most nutritious meals. She campaigned for better ventilation, basic hygiene, and fire escapes in public schools. She clamored for the city’s open sewer pipes to be closed.

She devoted herself to improving people’s quality of life in respectful harmony with the environment around them:

“Right living conditions comprise pure food and a safe water supply, a clean and disease-free atmosphere in which to live and work, proper shelter, and the adjustment of work, rest, and amusement.”

When she was still teaching, without pay or recognition, early in her career at MIT, mending the clothes of her male colleagues and sweeping her own laboratory’s floor, Richards wrote:

“I hope in a quiet way I am winning a way which others will keep open.”

She did. Her achievements, in furthering women’s education; validating women in science; revolutionizing air, water, and food sanitation; bringing chemistry to home economics; and in pioneering consumer advocacy, saved thousands of lives back then and since, have forever changed ours.

Yara Zgheib

Author Yara Zgheib

Yara is a writer, policy researcher and analyst, and lover of culture, travel, nature, art. She is the author of The Girls at 17 Swann Street and blogger behind Aristotle at Afternoon Tea. She has written for The Huffington Post, The Four Seasons Magazine, The Idea List, A Woman’s Paris, and Holiday Magazine.

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