About the Edition

The Ellen Swallow Richards Papers project aims to provide a single point of access through digital media to the manuscripts of Ellen Swallow Richards (1842–1911). Trained as a chemist, she broke into the male-dominated fields of science and technology.

Richards very much understood herself to be about the work of progress: reforming working class and immigrant eating habits and nutrition through the New England Kitchen, reforming public school education so that girls were trained in the sciences, reforming the home and introducing scientific principles such as the germ theory of disease to improve public health through the home economics movement.

Richards’s presence at MIT as the only woman working in the laboratory, walking the halls, and posing for group pictures with her male colleagues was part of a silent, yet powerful protest. Richards demonstrated daily through her work ethic, scientific acumen and institutional commitment that women belonged. Beyond simply being present in male-dominated spaces, she actively recruited female students, formed networks with other college-educated women, and passionately fought back against the logic that deemed women too fragile to study chemistry.

Currently, Richards’s papers include 712 items, many of which are not widely available or accessible given their division across a number of institutions: Vassar College, Smith College, MIT, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, University of Chicago, Columbia University and the MHS. One of the primary goals of the digital edition is to host transcriptions of Richards’s papers in one location online.

Given that there is no single archive for Richards’s materials, the goals of this edition are to increase access to her materials. Furthermore, the edition provides insight into what life was like for a woman in science in the late 1800s and early 1900s and will provide an example for today’s scientists of a historical example of how to confront barriers and exclusion to science.

Contributors & Credits

Principal Investigator: Serenity Sutherland

Special thanks to the following student contributors:

  • Leandra Baptiste
  • Emma Colling
  • Matthew Danielsson
  • Tyler Dohse
  • Brendan Heims
  • Elizabeth Miller

Mining Engineering and Mineralogy

Ellen Richards was the first woman inducted into the American Institute of Mining Engineers in 1879 based on her work alongside her husband, mining engineer Robert Richards, on extractive metallurgy. Robert and Ellen Richards frequently spent their summers performing field research at mines in Canada and Northern Michigan. Her 1877 paper on methods for determining nickel concentrations in pyrrhotite also led to her nomination to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Nutrition Science

Richards started an experimental kitchen alongside of fellow scientist Mary Hinman Abel. Located in Boston, the New England Kitchen was a place for working class and immigrant Bostonians to purchase what the reformers believed were “healthy meals” and to also observe the latest scientific tools and techniques in the quickly expanding field of nutritional science. Other versions of the New England Kitchen opened in Baltimore and Chicago, but most changed focus or closed after only a few years.