Today, a conservative woman radicalizes American
education. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Last spring I went to the
commencement at MIT. I watched two women getting
Ph.D. degrees. One came directly to Houston as a
new faculty member in my department. The other was
my daughter-in-law. She went on to do a post-doc in
They were the latest women to graduate from MIT.
The very first woman in that lineage was Ellen
Swallow, born in 1842 in a small New England town.
Ruth Cowan tells us that Ellen's parents were
schoolteacher/farmers -- that they gave her all the
education she got until she was 25.
In 1868 she went to the new women's college of
Vassar. Two years later she petitioned to enter the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- now nine
years old. She was denied, of course.
But then, with a logic peculiar to another age, MIT
cut a deal. She couldn't be a regular paying
student because she was female. Still, they could
let her sit in free of charge.
Ellen Swallow finished her degree and stayed on as
a chemistry assistant. She set to work analyzing
Boston's water supply. She also married a mining
professor -- Robert Richards.
Then she made an end run. She talked wealthy Boston
society into putting up money for para-academic
studies. She created a Women's Laboratory at MIT
where women could learn the rudiments of science.
She set up a correspondence school for homebound
women. She wrote its science curriculum. She set up
the New England Kitchen, where working class people
could learn about nutrition.
She'd positioned herself where she could keep the
heat on MIT to admit women into its regular
programs. She won that battle in 1882. Two years
later, MIT made Ellen Swallow Richards its first
woman faculty member. She helped develop a new
curriculum in air, water, and sewage chemistry.
Richards might seem conservative by our standards.
She saw the home and child-rearing as complex and
important work. The women who did it, she said,
should be educated.
She spent thirty years
developing the concept of domestic science. In 1908
she organized the American Home Economics
Association. She died in 1911, and by 1930
universities finally began giving home economics
degrees. She'd once been America's first sanitary
engineering instructor -- of either gender. Now, at
last, she'd created the new field of home economics
As homes have grown more automated, the field of
home economics has faded. Still, Richards's effort
-- restrained and determined -- bore fruit for me
last Spring at MIT. That effort added a new faculty
member to my department. And it is shaping the next
generation of my own family as well.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds