Ellen Henrietta Swallow Richards, MIT's first woman student

Ellen Henrietta (Swallow) Richards with cat

Ellen Henrietta Swallow with cat, circa 1860.

Ellen Henrietta (Swallow) Richards sampling water, circa 1872

Ellen Henrietta Swallow and colleague sampling water, circa 1872.

A Woman’s Right to Education

One of America’s first female professional chemists and the first woman to be accepted by a scientific school in the United States, Ellen Swallow Richards is best known for pioneering the fields of ecology and sanitary engineering. Richards’s work on the contamination of water and food led to the development of health and safety standards, and the fields of Home Economics and Sanitation. An advocate for the scientific education of women, she established “housekeeping” schools — teaching women sanitation and applied scientific principles — and founded the Woman's Laboratory at MIT in 1876.


In 1870, Ellen Henrietta Swallow became the first woman admitted to MIT, as a non-matriculated “special student” in Chemistry. She completed an SB in Chemistry from MIT in 1873, having earned an SB from Vassar College in 1870.  She also received a masters degree from Vassar in 1873, and an honorary Ph.D. from Smith College in 1910 for her work in sanitary chemistry.


Ellen Henrietta (Swallow) Richards in robes

Ellen Henrietta (Swallow) Richards in academic regalia, undated.

No Wasted Minutes


In 1884, after 7 years of unpaid labor at MIT, Richards became the  first woman on MIT’s faculty. She worked as an Instructor in the Sanitary Chemistry department until her death in 1911. In addition to her work at MIT, she authored numerous articles and reports in environmental science and engineering, and published more than 20 books. Shewas also a co-founder of the American Association of University Women.

Working in emerging fields dependent on natural resources, Ellen Swallow Richards and her peers often engaged with competing commercial and environmental interests in their scientific work. This tension is particularly noticeable in Richard’s work in ecology and mining.

In 1890, Richards conducted a groundbreaking water quality survey, leading to the creation of the first statewide water quality standards in the US. Richards is known as a pioneering clean air and water advocate who made important contributions to our understanding of environmental systems despite lacking modern understandings of sustainability and environmental protection.

Richards also consulted for mining firms, analyzing coal and ore samples with her husband Robert Hallowell Richards, the head of MIT’s Mining and Metallurgy Department. This work led to her historic election as the first woman member of the American Institute of Mining and Mineralogical Engineers. The mining industry's growth, facilitated in part by the 1862 Morrill Land Grant College Act, resulted in the forced seizure of Native American tribal territories, leading to environmental and indigenous rights issues that persist today.