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Environment Chemist

On December 3, 1842, environmental chemist Ellen Swallow Richards was born. Attracted to chemistry at Vassar, she applied for job as a professional chemist but was persuaded to apply to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she became the first woman accepted at this specialist science school where she received a second science degree.

In a special university stream for women at MIT, Richards became a teaching assistant. She instructed several curriculum courses until MIT started to award women their undergraduate degrees. Richards received no pay for her work but recognized she was achieving a position of power from which to exert her views and growing influence. Richards’ special interests in environmental study were issues of quality in groundwater, air, soils, and food.

As an instructor in MIT’s laboratory of sanitary chemistry, Richards attracted the attention of the Massachusetts State Board of Health. She was hired to survey the quality of the state’s inland bodies of water. Richards served as the state’s official water analyst. Working with her assistants, she oversaw the collection of 20,000 water samples and found several water sources polluted with industrial waste and municipal sewage. Her work resulted in recommendations for water-quality standards. Massachusetts became the first state to create standards for water-quality. It also led to the state’s first municipal sewage treatment plant. In setting water quality standards for Massachusetts, Richards had set them for the nation.

With colleague and food analyst A.G. Woodman, Richards published Air, Water and Food from a Sanitary Standpoint, a textbook that taught the importance of public sanitation. She went on to advocate running the home on a good understanding of science and its principles. Richards created original course curriculum, demonstrations, and models of family studies and domestic sciences. She wrote many books and articles around specific aspects of science required for healthful, efficient living.

She co-founded the Association of Collegiate Alumnae today called the American Association of University Women. Richards had become a public health advocate, a champion of women’s education in the sciences, and the foremost female industrial and environmental chemist in the United States in the 19th century.

B Bondar / Real World Content Advantage