Profiled engineer: Ellen Swallow Richards

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Born in Dunstable, Massachusetts in 1842, Ellen Swallow Richards was not only a pioneer for women in academia, she was a key founder of environmental engineering.

She was the first female student admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the first American woman to earn a degree in chemistry and go on to teach. 

Her admission to MIT was a special exception and was only accepted on the condition that “it did not establish a precedent for the general admission of females”. 

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“Her pioneering achievements for women in academia, are just the tip of the iceberg of Ellen Swallow Richards’ achievements”

She actually worked towards a doctorate and would have been America’s first female PhD graduate, but MIT had a change of heart and decided against awarding her the honour.

Her work

Her pioneering achievements for women in academia, are just the tip of the iceberg of Ellen Swallow Richards’ achievements. 

She also conducted groundbreaking research, which resulted in the first mapping of the human impact on the environment and varying pollution levels of various water sources across Massachusetts. The scale of the survey was unprecedented and resulted in the installation of a municipal sewage treatment plant.

For years she taught at MIT unpaid. This demonstrated to her detractors that she was serious about academia and her acceptance onto her chemistry degree wasn’t just a novelty. 

She was so determined to practice scientific research without her gender getting in the way, that she would carry on despite receiving very little acclaim from her colleagues or being awarded with the career progression she deserved. 

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