Ellen Swallow Richards, the first woman admitted to MIT, is one of the Institute’s historical celebrities. Her name graces a prestigious professorship for women faculty as well as a busy lobby in Building 4, complete with a portrait, relief sculpture, and exhibit. As MIT’s first female degree recipient and an instructor and researcher at the Institute for almost forty years, she surely deserves the stature. Richards was a pioneer for women not only at MIT, but in all of science.
Richards received her S.B. from MIT in 1873 (her second—the first was from Vassar in 1870). She was instructor in chemistry and mineralogy in the MIT Women’s Laboratory from its opening in 1876 through its closing in 1883 and instructor in sanitary chemistry from 1884 until her death in 1911.
She is considered the founder of the field of home economics, the application of scientific principles and expertise to matters of household, health, and family. The field became a sphere where women could pursue scientific careers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (although it also reinforced stereotypes of “women’s work” and formalized gender segregation in science). During its initial years, most of the students Richards worked with in the Women’s Laboratory were schoolteachers who wanted to improve their scientific knowledge and skill for the classroom. In 1880, Richards began to focus her attention on the potential utility of chemistry to homemakers, and in 1882, just before the closing of the Women’s Laboratory and the opening of MIT’s sanitation laboratory, she published her first book, The Chemistry of Cooking and Cleaning.
The book opens with the declaration that “in this age of applied science, every opportunity of benefiting the household should be seized upon.” In about 90 pages, Richards describes the science behind baking bread, cooking nutritious meals, removing stains from clothes and tarnish from silver, and other topics of “interest to the housekeeper.” The book found its audience, and subsequent editions were published in 1897 and 1907.