170th Birthday of Ellen Swallow Richards

  • Author: ChemViews
  • Published Date: 03 December 2012
  • Copyright: Wiley-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim
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Ellen Swallow was born in Dunstable, Massachusetts, USA, on December 3, 1842. She gained her first Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degree from Vassar University, USA, in 1870. In 1871, she gained admission to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), USA, to study chemistry. She was the first female student to be admitted to MIT. Upon graduation in 1873 she became the first woman in America to earn a chemistry degree. Swallows continued working and studying at MIT for the rest of her life. In 1975 she married Robert H. Richards, a professor in the mining engineering department.


Through her efforts, the Woman’s Laboratory was established at MIT in 1876 to encourage and improve women’s education. Swallow Richards served as an assistant instructor there until 1883 when women were awarded undergraduate degrees on a regular basis and the Woman’s Laboratory special track was no longer needed.

In 1884, she was appointed as an instructor at MIT’s newly opened sanitary chemistry lab, a position she held until her death. From 1887–1897, Swallow Richards served as the official water analyst for the Massachusetts’ State Board of Health. In addition, she wrote several classic texts in sanitary engineering, including Air, Water, and Food from a Sanitary Standpoint in 1900.


Swallow Richards died in 1911. One of her many lasting legacies is the American Association of University Women (AAUW), formed by Swallow Richards and 16 other women college graduates in 1881. The aim was to form an organization in which women graduates would aid each other and other women wishing to study at the highest levels. The AAUW today has over 150,000 members, 1,000 local branches, and 700 college and university partners. It continues to advance equity for women and girls through advocacy, education, and research.


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