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College of Human Ecology
Cornell University

Ellen Henrietta Swallow Richards (1842 - 1911) spent the early years of her adult life tending to her ill mother, until in 1868 at the age of twenty-five, she entered Vassar College as a junior. Following graduation in 1870, she attended the newly founded Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She was admitted to MIT as a "special student" without charge. Later she discovered this was due not to her financial status, as she had thought, but to her gender. As long as she was not paying to attend, MIT could keep her name off the student roster, and thus avoid acknowledging the admission of a female student.

In June 1873 she became the first female graduate from MIT, and in the same year she received her M.A. from Vassar. She continued graduate study at MIT for two years, but was unable to obtain a doctorate in chemistry: MIT was not willing to grant its first Ph.D. in chemistry to a woman. In 1874, she was appointed to the institute faculty as an instructor in sanitary education, a position she was to hold until her death, twenty-seven years later. In June 1875 Ellen Swallow married Professor Robert Hallowell Richards, and in November, she created a Woman's Laboratory at MIT that would remain in operation until 1883, when women were allowed to join the men in MIT's classrooms.

In 1890, Ellen Richards began to switch her focus to home economics with the start of the New England Kitchen and the Boston School of Housekeeping, which aimed to improve the standard of American living. Unfortunately, both programs proved unsuccessful. Starting in 1899, she organized summer conferences in Lake Placid, New York to work "for the betterment of the home." Within five years, the attendance at these conferences grew from the ten original members to over seven hundred participants. The efforts of these conferences culminated in December 1908 with the establishment of the American Home Economics Association (AHEA), which was dedicated to "the improvement of living conditions in the home, the institutional household, and the community." Richards presided over the AHEA until her retirement in 1910.

Ellen Richards had "faith in science as a cure-all." She used this faith to provide new avenues for women in the scientific arena, and in the process, she created the field of home economics.



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