All things environmental

Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Archive for December 2018

Ellen Swallow Richards, environmental science pioneer

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Ellen Swallow Richards

Ellen Swallow Richards was a pioneer of environmental science, among her many great achievements.  I am surprised it took me this long to learn about her (she’s been called the most influential scientist you’ve never heard of).  Well, better late than never; I’ll make sure to mention her to my students from now on.

Her life is nicely summarized in the YouTube video below, and there are many articles about her, such as this one by Elizabeth Durant, or by Bridget Paulus, by Sarah Richardson, or by Morgan Bettex, among others.  She is remembered the founder of home economics (or human ecology, as some call the discipline), as a pioneer in mineralogy (she identified vanadium), as an educator, or as the first female student at MIT, eventually to become the first female faculty there.  Do click the links and read, her life story is really interesting.

But I want to focus specifically on her achievements as an environmental scientist pioneer.  Before entering (unofficially) MIT, she had trained at Vassar College as a chemist.  She had many interests but kept her focus on practical applications that would improve the lives of those around her.

She felt that chemical contaminants in air, water, or food were associated with disease in one form or another.  Durant writes that

Students from the Women’s Lab helped her conduct research on nutrition, consumer products, and food adulteration, both in the lab at MIT and in her kitchen in Jamaica Plain–the nation’s first consumer-products test lab. At the time, there were no laws regulating the quality of food. In 1878 and 1879, ­Richards and her students conducted a study for the Massachusetts Board of Health, Lunacy, and Charity on adulteration of staple foods–the first such study in the nation. The results of this and further research were alarming: watered-down milk; samples of cinnamon that consisted entirely of mahogany sawdust; salt and sand in sugar; and sauces with tainted meat, to name a few discoveries. Their findings prompted the state to pass the first of its Food and Drug Acts in 1882.

The sanitation map of Massachusetts based on chlorine levels

Richards’s research on water quality was even more far-reaching. In 1887 Nichols’s successor put her in charge of implementing an extensive sanitary survey of Massachusetts inland waters, again for the board of health. The two-year study was unprecedented in scope. Richards supervised the collection and analysis of 40,000 water samples from all over the state–representing the water supply for 83 percent of the population. She personally conducted at least part of the analysis on each sample; the entire study involved more than 100,000 analyses. In the process, she developed new laboratory equipment and techniques, meticulously documenting her findings. Instead of merely recording the analysis data, she marked each day’s results on a state map–and noticed a pattern. By plotting the amount of chlorine in the samples geographically, she produced the famous Normal Chlorine Map, an indicator of the extent of man-made pollution in the state. The survey produced her pioneering water purity tables and led to the first water quality standards in the United States. Her biographer, Caroline Hunt, contends that the study was Richards’s greatest contribution to public health.

Water sampling

Richardson adds that she was instrumental in creating one of the first sewage treatment plant (unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find details, other than to learn that her efforts led to the creation of the first modern sewage treatment plant in Lowell):

In 1894, convinced Vassar should be an exemplar, she used her trusteeship to help devise the school’s first sewage system, retiring the practice of using a Poughkeepsie creek as a toilet drain. The initial estimate for the job was $37,000; the version Swallow Richards implemented cost $7,500. “The quality of life depends on the ability of society to teach its members how to live in harmony with their environment—defined first as the family, then with the community, then with the world and its resources,” she said.

Swallow Richards’ lab at MIT (with the famous map on the wall)

Paulus concludes her article with:

Richards introduced two terms in English: ecology and euthenics. The first, originally spelled “oekology,” was thought up by German biologist Ernst Haeckel. With Haeckel’s permission, Richards brought “ecology” to America and developed the field, including the role that humans play in her definition (now known as human ecology). While the word “ecology” caught on, Richards’ vision of the field didn’t have the same success and for a long time, the subject focused only on the relationships in nature.

As for euthenics (not to be confused with eugenics), this was a word Richards herself coined to mean “the betterment of living conditions, through conscious endeavor, for the purpose of securing efficient human beings.” Due to its broad scope, this term didn’t have the same success as ecology, but it’s the one that truly sums up Richards’s life work.