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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

Clean Water, Breathable Air, and the Science of Food: The Remarkable Legacy of Ellen Swallow

Updated: Dec 5, 2023

Every morning we wake up to a feast of assumptions. We assume that the place our sewage gets dumped is not the same place our drinking water comes from. We instinctively expect a complete list of ingredients to be found on the side of all of our food purchases, and know as a matter of course the relative merits of carbs and proteins. We know that our children, be they sons or daughters, will receive an education in the basic principles of science starting in elementary school. And when we are finally ready to decide how we’re going to get to work, at least part of that decision is based on the impact our choice will have on the quality of the air we breathe.

For literally all of this, we have one stunningly productive person to thank: Ellen Swallow (1842-1911). At least a dozen different disciplines of science can trace their beginnings to her fertile mind, and our way of interacting with our everyday world bears with it the force of her environmental concerns. She was the first to make a scientific study of the purity of American water systems, the first to study the chemical makeup of food and report her results directly to the public, the first to analyze air quality, both inside the home and out, and to design systems of filtration and circulation to improve our public buildings, the first to advocate for nutritious school and prison food programs designed by dieticians (a profession she also invented), the first to develop a baseline for future studies of country-wide water pollution, the first to run tests on industrial oil quality…. Really, I could fill the entire article with a list of Ellen Swallow’s scientific and technological firsts, but you get the idea. If you breathe it, drink it, or eat it, Ellen Swallow had a foundational hand in the science of it.

She was born in 1842, a sickly shop keeper’s daughter who wouldn’t let her physical ailments prevent her from exploring nature. She was gifted with an insatiable desire to know how humans, animals, plants, and the environment all work together to create the flow of everyday life. With her mother’s early death, she was, though still a child, left in charge of running the business side of her father’s store in the afternoons while attending school in the mornings. The ability to bounce back and forth between practical organization and academics stood her well in the years to come, when she had to be both the foundational head and intellectual font for the ecology movement she would create.

She attended the recently opened Vassar College to study chemistry but found that, at the end, she didn’t know enough to do anything of use. It was as of yet uncharacteristic for other American universities to admit a woman as a student of chemistry, and so she tumbled into the one and only period of despair in her life, wondering if it would have been better to never have learned anything, than to have learned so much without the ability to apply it.

Luckily, a new university was opening with a mind to experiment in the field of women’s education. MIT was a college that was breaking just about every other rule at the time in terms of subjects taught and overall purpose, so what was one more? Impressed by Emily’s recommendations from her Vassar professors, she was allowed to attend as a provisional trial student, a guinea pig to see if women’s scientific education was even possible.

It was. Swallow excelled in her work, and soon became an indispensable presence on campus, given the most difficult mineralogical assays to unravel. After graduating, she married one of her professors, Robert Richards, a marriage of equal minds who recognized each other’s worth and adored each other’s company that would remain strong and mutually supportive up until Ellen’s death in 1911. Swallow and Richards worked together to transform their home into a model environment, reworking the water source and drainage systems, inventing a new method of household heating and ventilation that would have made them a fortune if they hadn’t selflessly decided not to patent it, and setting up a workshop where Swallow tested the chemical composition of the food, air, and water we consume, amassing immense tables of purity versus cost that would form the core of her staggering literary output.

Meanwhile, at the university, she was given classes to teach and a lab of her own to start a project educating other women in laboratory sciences, but was distinctly not given a salary or a doctorate (in fact, in spite of being a recognized world leader in the sciences of mineralogy and industrial chemistry, she would not receive a doctorate until just a year before her death, and then from Smith, not MIT). So much would have been enough for any normal human, but not for Ellen Swallow. She organized a scientific course to take by correspondence, with the hope of teaching women stuck at home a little about the chemistry of the world around them, and made it a priority to write personally to any woman thinking about dropping the course to encourage them to keep training their mind.

She organized the first associations of female college alumni, and set them the task of gaining a wider admittance for women into the university system. She traveled the world, collecting water and air samples for her analyses and giving lectures about the chemical relationship between humans and their environment. In a time when Eugenics was the king of the scientific roost, with its theories about superior breeding and heredity, she argued strongly for a science she would call Euthenics, which focused on how heredity interfaced with environment to produce human society as we know it.

All the while she taught, training hundreds of scientists the importance of strict discipline in analyzing the components of the environment, and how best to go about affecting change, once our impact on the world became known.

And she made enemies. An industrial base that was all too happy to benefit from her studies of the safety and cost-effectiveness of its materials grew weary of the attention she kept drawing to their impact on the local water and air quality. More decisively, after inspecting several Boston schools, she made an impassioned speech about the festering filth she found. Student and teacher mortality was higher in Boston than anywhere else, and she soon found out why. The floors had not been swept since the schools’ opening. The ventilation was non-existent. Only one out of every eight rooms had a functioning fire escape. The food was prepared by the janitors in between lavatory cleanings. It was a disgrace, and Boston’s political elite resented her for calling the public’s attention to it.

Soon after, she found herself muscled out of her university work in the life sciences. Heredity-obsessed men wanted to run the game again, and Ellen Swallow was compelled to promise to keep silent for a year about her new ecological ideas. When she emerged from that year of silence, she realized that she wouldn’t be allowed any longer to contribute to a good half of the sciences that she helped invent. Characteristically, however, instead of standing still in dumb frustration, she simply redoubled her efforts in the fields that were still open to her, playing a foundational role in creating Home Economics in the process.

Home Ec has a pretty bad rap now, but it was a revolution at the time, with the goal of teaching people systematically the science of food, air, and water, the importance of proper drainage, the properties of different building and clothing materials, in short a complete overview of the scientific nature of the objects that surround us every day, but that nobody knew anything about until Swallow came along. She started up Home Science programs in schools across the country with marvelous success, even as her warnings about the environmental impact of the United States’s cult of material prosperity raised the hackles of the American economico-political system.

After her death in 1911, America launched itself onto the world stage and proceeded to do pretty much whatever it wanted for a few decades, gleefully leaving behind the warnings of Dr. Swallow about the cost of the inbuilt obsolescence of their goods or of natural resources too blithely consumed. It would take a new generation to finally resurrect her ideas and madly scramble to make up for a half century of lost time. And they did, bequeathing us a world whose workings are more familiar to the average seven year old than they were to the average adult of Swallow’s time. We are at long last equipped to make reasonable decisions about how to go about our small stretch of life in this world, and that bit of consciousness might well turn out to be the greatest gift any single individual has ever bequeathed humanity, our first best defense against our own instincts and natures.

Thanks, Dr. Swallow.


Ellen Swallow wrote dozens of books, many of which continued to be standards for decades after her death, and all of which make fascinating reading today. If you want to get the whole scope of her career, though, probably the best place to go is Ellen Swallow: The Woman Who Founded Ecology written by Robert Clarke in 1973. What’s neat about it is that it was written when ecology was finally getting its second scientific wind, and so you get some neat sympathetic resonances happening that aren’t necessarily there in earlier biographies. Incidentally, many aspects of her career were inspired by that of an earlier innovator in materials evaluation, Count Rumford, who was a kind of genius charlatan who is incredibly fun to read about, and about whom there are several books worth flagging down.

This piece was originally published in 2014 as the 6th Episode of the Women In Science column.


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