Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Women's Laboratory, 1876-1883

Corporation Vote | Catalogue Announcement
Transcription of first report by Richards to the Women's Education Association

Collection on the Women's Laboratory in the Institute Archives, 1867-1922 (AC 298)
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Catalogue Announcement

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Twelfth Annual Catalogue of the Officers and Students, with a Statement of the Courses of Instruction. 1876-1877.

Building housing Women's Laboratory
Building housing the Women's Laboratory.
Photograph courtesy of the MIT Museum

At the request of the Woman's Education Association of Boston, and with their generous cooperation, new laboratories have been recently provided for the special instruction of women. The design is to afford every facility for the study of Chemical Analysis, of Industrial Chemistry, of Mineralogy, and of Chemistry as related to Vegetable and Animal Physiology. These courses are intended for such as may be able to devote their whole time to the work, as well as for those who, by reason of other engagements, can spend only a few hours a week in these exercises.

The laboratories, which are in the Annex to the main building, are open from 8:30 A.M., till 5:30 P.M.

Students in these laboratories will pay the same fees as other students of the Institute.

Transcription of the first report by Ellen S. Richards to the Women's Education Association, 1877

For further information see archival collection
AC 298 in the Institute Archives and Special Collections.

Women's Laboratory
Women's Laboratory.
Photograph courtesy of the MIT Museum

It is is always pleasant to us to have our prophecies fufilled and especially pleasant when some doubt has been expressed as to the probability of fulfillment. I hope to be pardoned therefore if I seem to boast of the fulfillment of my own predictions. I recall so clearly a conversation with two officers of the association on the morning on which we paid over the last installment of money collected for the Laboratory and while both of the ladies were very much interested in the plan and delighted with the hearty response given to their appeal they both expressed their doubts as to the result. One said to me: I wish I could feel as sure as you do that there are women who do really want this kind of opportunity. When I said that I felt perfectly sure of 15 students during the first year; both exclaimed oh if there are 8 or 10 I shall be quite happy and think the money well spent.

The rooms were not open until the last of October and were not advertised outside of the Association except by a few circulars sent to friends of the members and to contributors. At this date we have had 23 students in the Chemical Laboratory, 10 or 12 other applicants failed to come by reason of sickness, inability to pay, or insufficient preparation. Some 15 are already enrolled for next year.

Doubt as to the success of the enterprise was also expressed in another way. Those who have had experience with the free science classes said that we should find the number of those who were willing to pay for their instruction very small. This statement was not far from the truth if we substitute "able" for "willing". Of the 23 only 5 (as far as I am able to judge) have been in a condition to pay the fee without sacrifice and self denial. This makes the number who spend much time in Laboratory quite small. The study as much as possible outside and gain as much as they can in an afternoon. While this increases the usefulness of the Laboratory it materially lessens its income, the receipts from the 23 students will hardly be equal to the amount received from 5 regular students.

Some statement as to the class of work done may interest us. First in importance we may place that of aid rendered to the teachers. During Nov. and Dec. the Laboratory had the honor to number among its students our friend from Smith College later her successor at Wellesley and that lady's successor at Framingham Normal. The teacher of sciences at Bradford Academy spent a month with us. 3 teachers of chemistry at the Girls High School have given Saturdays to practical work. 7 others are looking forward to becoming teachers of science. These students have been given work which would illustrate principles and merely facts. All their instruction has had for its end the broadening of their ideas of science and fitting them thus to impress on their pupils the depths of the channel and not merely its surfae breadth as is so apt to be the result of popular scientific teaching. Of the remaining number--2 are engaged in original research. 3 are studying for the use they may put it to in the future but with no definite aim for the immediate future. Their work is more strictly educational and had a more direct bearing on their own minds. We have 4 married women--3 of them with families of children from 5 to 18 years old. The aid that the Laboratory has been able to give them has been to me its pleasured feature, the proof of its truly broad and liberal character.

I have felt the greatest satisfaction in opening the treasures of our store-house to two of theses ladies in particular. One is studying in order to become a physician. Her husband is a doctor of long practice and I presume a very intelligent man -- but he sees the defects in the education of his early days and wishes her to have the best of modern times. In the two months that she stayed with us we gave her an insight into microscopical work as well as some practice in the theoretical and medical chemistry and taught her to read scientific German with the aid of a dictionary. We feel that superfical and slight as was the actual amount of knowledge she gained it will nevertheless make her a far more intelligent and thoughtful pupil of the medical school to which she is going.

The other lady has been studying mineralogy only but this case deserves notice because of the possibility of many others taking courage to carry out even at a late day their early longings.

Determination -- Mineralogy or the determination of mineral species by the blowpipe is rarely if ever taught in colleges. Smith College will be an exception to the rule. Scientific schools usually give a course of it, but until within a few years the so called mineralogists were collectors who had learned to distinguish the common varieties by sight. Most of the dealers in minerals are still of this clan. I suppose very few women in the country understand this very fascinating subject and yet there is not another in which women would so readily excel for it requires nice distinctions of color, lustre and other appearances. Although it is dependent upon chemistry and in any strict scientific school should follow it, yet it is quite possible to take it up and fully enjoy it and succeed in it as this lady has done without any previous knowledge of chemistry for the few simple principles are readily learned in the course of practice.

I have been over the ground thus minutely in order to show you the variety of work made possible in this one little room with earnest workers therein. Even if the belief of people in general that womans mind is not capable of deep scientific thought is proved true--yet we must acknowledge that the valleys and foot-hills of science are very attractive to the feminine mind even if they can never hop to scale the heights snow capped above them.

I will hazard the statement that when the opportunities are equal 4/5 of the intelligent girls will choose science and will become industrious workers in the field of observation, gathering together heaps of facts from which their superiors may build generalizations.

The other more expensive room, the Optical Laboratory has not yet been perfected. The other room required so much more time than we anticipated by reason of the number and variety of pupils that we have made slow progress.

Nevertheless the Institute class in Vegetable Physiology numbering 8 or 9 -- the Boston University class in Botany and 3 gentlemen have been accomodated there in a far better manner than would have been possible in any other place in Boston. 6 or 8 of the students in chemistry have also availed themselves of its priviledges by employing 2 to 4 hours a week in this way.

As to the future prospects, this Optical Laboratory promises the widest field when it becomes known. It proposes to occupy an entirely new field, looking toward Biology from the Chemical side -- not supplanting the work of Biological Laboratories but sending to them for better prepared pupils--

The old adage well begun is half done has much truth in it-- We can certainly call this new enterprise well begun and as one of the Trustees said last -- it will be easier to let it go on than to stop it.

Biography | Ellen Swallow Richards and MIT | World's Fair - Rumford Kitchen
Tributes after her death | Publications by and about Ellen Swallow Richards
Collection on Ellen Swallow Richards (MC 659 [PDF])

August 1999

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