Ellen Henrietta (Swallow) Richards is generally recognized as the woman who founded ecology. She was the very definition of a pioneer in such diverse fields as chemistry, geology and mineralogy, mining and metallurgy, environmental science, public health, home economics, and education. She was probably the first woman to receive a collegiate-level science degree in the United States and among the first to recognize the environmental aspects of mining.
Ellen Swallow was the first woman to attend and graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1873. She also received degrees from Vassar and was later awarded an Honorary Doctor of Science from Smith College in 1910. She was the first female faculty member at MIT, the founder of the Women’s Laboratory there, and the school’s first Dean of Women. In 1875, she became the first woman admitted to membership in the American Institute of Mining Engineers (AIME), where she remained a life-long member.
In 1875, Ellen Swallow married Robert H. Richards, Professor of Mining and Metallurgy at MIT (also a National Mining Hall of Fame inductee). She frequently traveled with her husband on his consulting and student trips to mines, acting as his assayer and colleague. She even taught his mining engineering classes over a two year period while he recovered from an illness. During trips to the copper region of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in the early 1880s, she was believed to be the first to establish an environmental baseline for copper in the area.
On her own, Swallow Richards visited and evaluated ore deposits in upper New York State and metalliferous deposits in Maine, Canada, and elsewhere. She was likely the first to report on some unknown elements in samarskite, which were later identified by others as samarium and gadolinium. She published “A New Method to Determine Nickel in Pyrrhotites and Mattes,” which she applied to ore from the Coppercliffe Mine, which essentially kicked off the nickel industry in Ontario with her determination of five percent nickel in a sample of “copper” ore.
Swallow Richards taught a course in mineralogy at the Boston Museum of Natural History to children, school teachers, and Harvard undergraduates. In 1882, she published First Lessons in Minerals for public school students. This book traced elements through fuels, foods, and materials to the human body, and is among the first books published in elementary environmental studies. She has numerous publications to her credit, and her work in food chemistry was among the earliest efforts in understanding the science of human nutrition.
The mining industry can truly claim Ellen Swallow Richards as one of its own. Her relentless spirit to pursue a career in what was without question a “man’s world” at the time, and to become a respected and valued contributor to the industry on her own merit, is testimony of her extraordinary character, perseverance, and commitment to life-long learning.