Who was Ellen H. S. Richards?

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Answered by: caleb, An Expert in the American History - General Category
Ellen H. S. Richards was the first woman admitted to MIT. She was instrumental in the creation of home economics, that dreaded staple of middle and high school education. Ellen Richards improved upon earlier "domestic scientists," applying her comprehensive knowledge of chemistry to the home. She called this application of her knowledge "euthenics."

Richards grew up in the shadow of the first wave of domestic scientists, feminists, and education reformers, women such as Catherine Beecher (who wrote "A Treatise on Domestic Economy in 1840), and Emma Willard and Mary Lyon (academy founders). Ellen H. S. Richards grew up in Massachusetts, attended the Westford Academy, a coeducational institution, then taught there briefly before quitting to care for her dying mother, Roxanna Foote Beecher.

Richards was then diagnosed with neurasthenia, a psychopathological disorder similar to anxiety disorder or manic depression. Her condition improved only when her parents sent her to Vassar College. She studied Astronomy and Chemistry at Vassar, then, upon graduating, sought work as an educator in Argentina. This failed, as did her attempts to gain employment as a chemical analyst. The overtone was that, as a woman, she could not be taken seriously as a chemist. But then one firm suggested she apply to Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and she was accepted. MIT waived all of her tuition, a seeming boon, but in reality they were not entirely keen to have her; they waived her tuition because they did not want to have a woman “on the official rolls.”

After Richards graduated, she lectured at MIT and eventually set up her own women's laboratory at MIT. She began publishing widely on sanitation and domestic topics, and eventually coined the term "euthenics" in her 1905 text The Cost of Shelter. Five years later she explained her concept of "euthenics" fully in the seminal text "Euthenics: The Science of Controllable Environment." In the earlier text, Richards defines euthenics as “the science of better living.” In the latter text, her definition expands to “the betterment of living conditions, through conscious endeavor, for the purpose of securing efficient human beings.”

The idea of "euthenics" would far outlast Richards herself. Ellen H. S. Richards died one year after publishing "Euthenics: The Science of Controllable Environment," but her simple scientific concepts about “good living” brought legitimacy to millions of female homemakers' toil. Richards expanded on the kind of environment Catharine Beecher left for the next generation of women reformers; in effect, Richards, took the domestic science reins and galloped into uncharted territory.

Science had been, since Darwin, drifting into two diverse camps: that of "hard" science, and that of "soft" science. Hard science was the vanguard work done in labs by "objective" technicians. Soft science was the scientific literature that was geared towards popular readership, science that was based on observation, anecdote, experience, and other relevant data sources--but not quantifiable replicable in a lab. Richards managed to legitimize domestic science, by applying her MIT education and knowledge of chemistry to the hitherto unprofessional domain of the homemaker.

Her popular works were well-received; her scientific work was as solid as any other scientific work of the time, and her legacy of professionalizing the home opened up higher education for women well into the twentieth century.

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