Tributes to Ellen Swallow Richards

From Technology Review, vol. 13, 1911, pp. 365-373

Biographical Sketch by H. P. Talbot, '85 | Poem by L. E. R.
An Appreciation by W. T. Sedgwick | Action of Woman's Education Association



Ellen Henrietta Richards, A.M., Sc.D.

A biographical sketch of her life--Her remarkable career
and her many public activities

The death of Mrs. Ellen H. Richards, on the thirtieth of March, occasioned a sense of personal loss to an unusually large number of friends, acquaintances and co-laborers in widely different walks of life. For nearly forty years a participant in the work of the Institute of Technology, she had become a prominent and most active figure among its corps of instructors; her scientific work had gained for her a wide acquaintance among various scientific organizations, local and national; her social service and interest in all that pertained to the higher education of women and to the betterment of living conditions for all had made her a leader whom thousands had learned to respect and were glad to follow.

Mrs. Richards was born at Dunstable, Mass., in 1842, the daughter of Peter and Fanny G. Swallow. She entered Vassar College in due course and was graduated in 1870, having devoted much time to astronomy as a pupil of Prof. Maria Mitchell. She soon afterward connected herself with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, turned her attention to chemistry, and was graduated from that course in 1873, with the degree of Bachelor of Science. While the reasons for the selection of chemistry as a field for her later work are not accurately known, a memorandum which was apparently made by her indicates that it was because she felt that greater opportunities for effective service to her fellow beings were open in that than in other fields and this probably represented the first, and possibly unconscious, leaning toward public service which later manifested itself in so large a measure.

The marriage of Miss Ellen Swallow to Prof. Robert H. Richards, in 1875, marks the beginning of that mutually sympathetic and hospitable home life which has been generously shared with hundreds of Institute students and other friends for more than a quarter of a century.

During the period from 1873 to 1884, Mrs. Richards was active in various fields. A part of her time was given to teaching, but much of it was devoted to the assistance of Profs. John M. Ordway and William Ripley Nichols. The former maintained an active practice as consulting expert in technical chemistry, while the latter had gained an enviable reputation as an authority in matters of water supplies. It was also during this period that the Women's Laboratory was established to afford better opportunities for the scientific education of women. It was housed in a portion of a one-story structure located between the present sites of the Rogers and Walker Buildings, and later removed when the Walker Building was erected. This laboratory was established largely through the instrumentality of Mrs. Richards in enlisting the financial support necessary for it, hers was the guiding hand in its management, and hers the leading spirit in this, as in other subsequent movements of similar import.

Her association with Professor Ordway laid the foundation for her later service (1884-1894) as chemist to the Manufacturers Mutual Fire Insurance Co., in which she did much interesting work bearing upon the danger from spontaneous combustion of various oils in commercial use. It also gave her an appreciation of technical problems which added much to her efficiency as a teacher. Her work in sanitary chemistry with Professor Nichols was destined to be of still more significance, for, in 1887, the State Board of Health of Massachusetts began a comprehensive survey of the water supplies of the State which involved a series of problems for the solution of which she was especially well prepared. This work was under the immediate supervision of Dr. Thomas M. Drown, but the success of the undertaking, now a classic of its kind, was in no small measure due to the enthusiasm, energy, experience and insight with which Mrs. Richards threw herself into the work of devising methods, recording results and organizing assistance. Over twenty thousand samples of water were examined under her supervision, a record never approximated before that time, the results of which made possible generalizations of lasting value, not only to this community, but to the world. Mrs. Richards was chemist to the Board of Health from 1872 to 1875 and water analyst from 1887 to 1897.

Mrs. Richards also found time to take an intelligent and helpful interest in the professional work of Professor Richards and some of her earliest published work associated itself with the mineral industries. She was elected to membership in the American Institute of Mining Engineers, a distinction conferred upon only one other woman. She received the degree of Master of Arts from Vassar College in 1873, and her large circle of friends was greatly pleased by the deserved recognition on the part of Smith College in the conferring upon her of the honorary degree of Doctor of Science, in 1910. She was also for many years a member of the Board of Trustees of Vassar College.

Staff of Chemistry Lab, 1899-1900
Staff of Chemistry Laboratory, 1899-1900.
Photograph courtesy of the MIT Museum.

In 1884 Mrs. Richards was appointed instructor in Sanitary Chemistry at the Institute of Technology, a position which she held at the time of her death. For many years she directed the entire instruction in the chemistry of air, water and foods, for chemists, biologists and sanitary engineers, and only relinquished the chemistry of food supplies when the pressure of other affairs made this necessary. Her service as an instructor was helpful and inspiring, and the extent of her personal and financial sacrifice for her pupils and for the increase of the effectiveness of her laboratory will probably never be adequately known or appreciated. She also maintained an extensive private practice in sanitary chemistry for many years and acted in an advisory capacity for a very large number of public and private institutions. Her publications relating to sanitation have been numerous and varied, and she maintained active membership in, and participated in the meetings of local and national societies dealing with water supplies and public health problems.

All of this would seem a sufficient achievement for even a busy life, but there still remains what may possibly be regarded as the most important aspects of Mrs. Richards' life work, namely, her leadership in matters pertaining to home economics and to the education of women. Preeminently a successful organizer, she gave more and more time and attention in recent years to problems relating to the conservation of human life and energies and the uplift of her fellow beings. With extraordinary energy and tireless activity, she traveled from one end of the country to the other, lecturing, teaching and, when necessary, pleading in behalf of the causes which were so dear to her. In this work she was highly successful, not only in the attainment of immediate benefits, but in the inspiration of others to foster and continue the enterprises which she inaugurated. It is gratifying to note that plans are already on foot to bring together a memorial fund to be known as the Ellen H. Richards Research Fund, the proceeds to be used for the promotion of advanced work in Sanitary Chemistry, in recognition of her labor and self-sacrifice. Her writings upon household economics and kindred topics include numerous books of recognized value, a large number of papers read before gatherings of the most varied character, and many magazine articles.

Her death occurred at her home at Jamaica Plain, after a brief illness. She literally spent the last remnants of her strength in public service, never fully recovering from the strain of her last public speech in behalf of better standards of living.

A powerful leader, a wise teacher, a tireless worker, of sane and kindly judgment, Mrs. Richards has taught and inspired thousands to carry forward the movements which she has inaugurated. Her associates and co-laborers necessarily mourn their loss and miss her leadership, but they will best express their appreciation of her life and its far-reaching influence by increased activity in behalf of those phases of human progress and betterment for which she sacrificed herself so freely.

H. P. TALBOT, '85.


Ellen Swallow Richards.
Photograph courtesy of the MIT Museum

Ellen H. Richards

A voice is hushed: but ere it failed,
The listening echoes caught its tone,
And now its message clear and keen
On every wind of heaven is blown.

A staff is broke: but ere it snapped,
Those who had leaned on it so long
Had made its steadfast fibre theirs,
And fare now forward, straight and strong.

A light is quenched: but ere it paled,
It lit a hundred torches' flame,
That shine across the darkening sky,
And star with gold one honored name.

L. E. R.
April, 1911.



An appreciation of her work at the Institute by Prof. Sedgwick

We have lost a great teacher. For whatsoever else Mrs. Richards was--and that was much--she was first and foremost a teacher. She was fortunate in being closely associated in her professional education and in her professional work with two distinguished chemists, the leaders of their time in sanitary chemistry, a subject which she early made her own. From William Ripley Nichols especially, who from the time of his graduation from the Institute in 1869--the same year in which the State Board of Health of Massachusetts was organized--until his death in 1886, was the highest authority on water analysis in the western world, and whose mind was one of the keenest and finest that I have ever known, Ellen Swallow as a student, and Mrs. Richards as an assistant and associate, gained her principal training in the methods and ideals of sanitary science and public health service. And when Professor Nichols' successor, Dr. Thomas Messinger Drown, was invited in 1887 by the then newly-organized State Board of Health to take charge of the sanitary survey of the inland waters of the State, the first in that brilliant series of sanitary undertakings which have brought renown to Massachusetts, Professor Drown turned at once to Mrs. Richards as the proper person to supervise and administer the great laboratory for water analysis which the State Board of Health established, and for years maintained in the Walker Building of the Institute. Here a few years later a celebration was held when the ten thousandth specimen of water sent in for analysis came to be analyzed. Here also was prepared that famous "normal chlorine" map of Massachusetts which was the first of the kind to be prepared anywhere and which has served as a model in sanitary surveys of states and countries all over the world. This laboratory, always presided over with a firm yet genial hand by Mrs. Richards, will long remain famous in the annals of American water analysis. From it have gone out dozens of men and women who are today directors or workers in similar laboratories all over the United States.

But fond and proud as Mrs. Richards was of her laboratory of sanitary chemistry, she was never restricted to that narrow space. At her home in Jamaica Plain, where hundreds of Technology students and teachers have from time to time foregathered and shared her gracious hospitality, she found time to prepare a series of books which extended her influence as a teacher to schools, colleges, clubs, associations and societies almost without number. She was rightly recognized as an authentic speaker upon a wide range of sanitary subjects and was always heard with respect and regard, for the very reason that she spoke with the authority of the laboratory and the scientific world and not merely as one of the scribes. The mere enumeration of her writings would fill a column and one needs only to open one of her volumes, such for example as her latest, "Conservation by Sanitation," to marvel at the breadth of her writings and the extent of her reflection upon sanitary themes. She was without question a master of her subjects, and the foremost sanitary authority of her sex in the whole world, and yet Mrs. Richards was always a woman, believing intensely in the home and its fundamental importance. Most of her books and writings deal in fact directly with the home, such for example as "The Chemistry of Cooking and Cleaning," "The Cost of Living," "The Cost of Food," "The Cost of Shelter," "The Art of Right Living," "The Cost of Cleanness"; and although her interests and work reached out far beyond the home and into the world at large, she was ever mindful of its supreme importance in American life.

Mrs. Richards was a graduate of Vassar College, always a loyal alumna and for a long time a trustee. She was, however, no less devoted to the Institute of Technology, from which she received the degree of bachelor of science in chemistry in 1873. She appreciated intensely that rigid discipline which has always characterized its training and she was keenly alive to its achievements and its rising reputation. She was personally and closely attached to its founder and first president, William Barton Rogers, and his wife. To the women students of the Institute she stood literally in loco parentis, and many a girl struggling to meet financial obligations or the academic requirements of the Institute has found in Mrs. Richards an elder sister or a foster mother. It was, therefore, with the greatest satisfaction that her friends and colleagues learned of the conferring upon her of the degree of Doctor of Science by Smith College at its recent anniversary, for upon no one could that degree have been bestowed more justly.

It is a matter for congratulation that death came to Mrs. Richards, doubtless as she would herself have wished, while she was still full of intellectual vigor and hard at work. Many gaps left by death are not difficult to fill, but this is not the case with Mrs. Richards. Her position in the Institute and her work in the world were both unique. No one can fill her place. Other women may become experts in water analysis. and preside over laboratories, but no one hereafter can possibly gain the peculiar historic equipment which fell to Mrs. Richards. Other women may, and no doubt will, make addresses and write books upon sanitation and the home, but no one else can ever do these things as Mrs. Richards has done them, for the reason that she was herself an evolution and represented an epoch. We are always too prone to undervalue things familiar and near at hand, and Boston and Massachusetts have never adequately appreciated Mrs. Richards or her work. But now that she is gone and no one can possibly take her place, we may begin to realize the extent of our loss.

Those of us who have had the privilege of being her colleagues and enjoying her friendship will miss her vigorous personality, her sane and keen judgments, her cheerful smile. We are grateful to have shared her companionship and to have felt her womanly influence. Her name is already writ large in the history of New England women and of the Institute, and many who knew and valued Mrs. Richards will hold her in affectionate remembrance, both for what she was and for what she has done.

Boston Transcript, March 31.



The Woman's Education Association wishes to express the deep sense of personal loss which comes to it by the death of Mrs. Ellen H. Richards. Since 1875, for thirty-six years, Mrs. Richards has been a member of our association. During all this long period there has never been a time when she had not been actively engaged in furthering one or more of the most vital and interesting features of our work. As volunteer teacher, as hard-working member of various committees--notably of the Chemical Laboratory for Women, of the Summer Laboratory at Annisquam, and of the Domestic Science Committee, as chairman of the Committee on Public Schools, and as vice-president of our association, she was untiring in the wise and enthusiastic service which she rendered. Many enterprises of importance to the welfare of the community are included in so long a period of active work. Among them all it is well to remember with special gratitude the generous help given so long ago by Mrs. Richards to the development of the opportunities for women at the Institute of Technology. In the annual report of our association for 1883, at the end of the sixth year of the work of the Sub-Committee for the Chemical Laboratory for Women there is the following tribute to Mrs. Richards:

"The results thus far have exceeded our anticipation, but they have been obtained at the cost of great personal sacrifice on the part of a few devoted workers. To one of the professors (of the Institute) and to Mrs. Ellen H. Richards, a member of our association, our success has been due. Mrs. Richards was the inspirer of the enterprise, and has not only given it the benefit of her experience and thorough scientific training, but has lavished upon it time, and strength, and money. To the successful carrying out of the work then tentatively begun is due the assured existence of the laboratory as part of the Institute of Technology."

Such was the quality of effort given by Mrs. Richards to one of the earliest undertakings of our association. For nearly thirty years she continued to work for the department thus established. This persistency, this faithfulness and unflagging enthusiasm in face of all obstacles, this generous giving of herself, were characteristic of Mrs. Richards in every piece of work to which she lent her hand. Our association is grateful for its share of so long and so fine a record of noble service to the community.

Ellen Swallow Richards and MIT | The Women's Laboratory
World's Fair - Rumford Kitchen | Publications by and about Ellen Swallow Richards
Collection on Ellen Swallow Richards (MC 659 [PDF])

August 1999

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