Capitol Corridor
University of California
Capitol Corridor

Ellen Swallow Richards

Do you remember where you got your most recent drink of water?  Your kitchen faucet?  A public drinking fountain at work or school?  Maybe a personal water bottle you filled at home?  In the late 1800's, people found it hard to believe that invisible germs and bacteria in water caused germs.  If the water looked clean, it must be clean, they thought!  An amazing chemist, Ellen Swallows Richards, set out to teach people how to live healthier lives.  I'd like to tell you about this early pioneer in public health.

As a child, Ellen wanted to learn all she could about math and science.  She loved to measure things!  She would even sneak into the cellar in her home to weigh herself.  Most people then believed that girls had smaller brains than boys.  Ellen's parents feared she would not be successful if she did not learn more traditional subjects.  In high school, Ellen saved money for college by tutoring math at a rate of $5/month.  She applied to MIT, and was the first woman to be admitted.  The college admitted her for free, because the board did not believe she would be successful in their program.  They did not want her poor scores to reflect badly on their records.  In June, 1873, Ellen became the first woman in America to earn a degree in chemistry.

After graduation, a fellow scientist, Robert Hallowell Richards, asked Ellen to marry.  She said he must quit smoking first.  It took two years, but they finally married.  Ellen put her ideas for healthy living into practice in their first home.  She put living green plants in their windows, rather than fashionable heavy drapes.  She pulled up the heavy dusty carpets, saying they were harmful to one's health, full of dust and germs. Ellen designed a hood for their stove, to pull polluted air out of their house.  She had a gas meter installed in her home, because she wanted to know how much energy was needed to cook different foods.  Once, Ellen decided to analyze a sack of groceries.  She found that the package of sugar was loaded with sand, and that yellow dye was added to the container of milk to make it look like it had more cream.  There were no laws to stop people from doing this!

Ellen's specialty became improving people's lives by using chemistry.  In 1884, she became an instructor at MIT's new sanitary chemistry lab. The Massachusetts Board of Health wanted to test all the water in their state. This was the first statewide study of water pollution in the United States.  The board needed a scale or way to judge water against a standard of purity.  The old method was to inject a sample of water under the skin of a rabbit.  If the water was infected, the rabbit got sick!  Ellen wanted to analyze water chemically, and came up with a chart using chlorine.  She tested water from every lake and river in Massachusetts, analyzing over 40,000 samples.  Her testing produced the “Normal Chlorine Map”, the first standard for fresh water anywhere.

Ellen had become one of the top chemists in the country.  She tested water at schools, orphanages, and factories.  In 1885, Boston asked her to plan a balanced, healthy meal for all students in Boston.  Her motto was,”You are what you eat!”  After the first year, over 5,000 students were eating a healthy, filling meal at school, replacing the cakes and candies that the school janitors had been selling.

During her entire life, Ellen worked for the public good, encouraging clean water, fresh air, and pure food.  Every letter she wrote ended with the words,”keep thinking”!  In 1908, Ellen was elected the first President of the American Home Economics Association.  She is credited with founding the home economics movement, characterized by applying chemistry to study nutrition. 

As I return to my question to you from earlier, about drinking water, I am struck by the creative intelligence of Ellen Swallow Richards, so many years ago.  She offered the public a completely new way of thinking about healthy living, healthy foods, and fresh air.  Will you join me and enjoy a big drink of clean, cold water?  I am grateful that Ellen Swallow Richards persevered with her interest in math and science, helping all of us to lead happier, healthier lives.



photo from
photo from

Posted on Monday, June 11, 2018 at 4:53 PM


Thank you for a most interesting article!

Posted by Libbey McKendry on June 15, 2018 at 6:07 AM

Thank you for a most interesting article!

Posted by Libbey McKendry on June 15, 2018 at 6:08 AM

Leave a Reply

You are currently not signed in. If you have an account, then sign in now! Anonymously contributed messages may be delayed.

Security Code:

Webmaster Email: