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Ellen Swallow Richards

Ellen Swallow Richards (1842-1911) upon receiving honorary Degree of Doctor of Science at Smith College — 1910




Ellen Swallow Richards (1842-1911)  received a B.S. from Vassar College in 1870. She earned another B.S. from M.I.T. in 1873 and, in the same year, an M.A. from Vassar. She studied for a doctorate at M.I.T., but never received it, reportedly because “the heads of the department did not wish a woman to receive the first D.S. in chemistry. She also received an honorary degree from Smith College in 1910.

She was instrumental in establishing the Women’s Laboratory, which operated at MIT from 1876 to 1883, to improve the scientific education of women. From 1884 to her death she held the position of instructor in sanitary chemistry at MIT.







MIT Women's Lab

Women’s Chemical Laboratory at MIT

The Women’s Laboratory opened in 1876 with Professor John M. Ordway in charge, assisted by Richards. She held the position of instructor in chemistry and mineralogy in the Women’s Laboratory until it closed in 1883. From 1884 to her death in 1911, Ellen Richards was instructor in sanitary chemistry at MIT.






water lab

The Water laboratory showing the Famous Chlorine Map




In 1884, M.I.T. set up a chemical laboratory for the study of sanitation, the first of its kind, with William Nichols in charge and Ellen Richards was his assistant.

During this time, Richards devised the first water purity tests and, beginning in 1887, she was put in charge of the laboratory; she ran it during the groundbreaking study of water pollution in Massachusetts that modernized sewage treatment (“The Great Sanitary Survey”), commissioned by the State Board of Health.



Ellen (Swallow) Richard's Normal Chlorine Map

Ellen (Swallow) Richard’s Normal Chlorine Map

Ellen Richards was active in social services, leading efforts to improve the health and education of the general community. Her famous “normal chlorine map” of Massachusetts was part of a State Board of Health survey of water supplies that begun in 1887. Ellen Richards played an important role in that survey as the supervisor of the chemical laboratory analyzing the water.

Ellen Swallow Richards gathering the scum on  Jamaica Pond, Boston, Ma., 1901,  Courtesy of the Sophia Smith Collection

Ellen Swallow Richards gathering the scum on Jamaica Pond, Boston, Ma., 1901, Courtesy of the Sophia Smith Collection


Clean Water Act Turns 40!

Learn which water germs make you sick

Learn about the chemical properties of Chlorine (CL)

Chlorine is a chemical that prevents bacteria from growing and it is one of the most commonly used disinfectants for killing germs in water.

Chlorine poisoning occurs when someone swallows or breathes in (inhales) chlorine.

Center for Disease Control (CDC) – Drinking Water






Teaching Aid:

Have a debate about Tap vs Bottled water.

Discuss the environmental impact of plastic bottle trash.

Is bottled water better than tap water?

Watch the video Water Debate: Bottled vs. Tapped from ABC News:

WATCH: Is Bottled Water a Rip-Off?

How Pure Is Bottled Water?

Just One Thing: Green Your Drinking Water



Archived Collections for Ellen Richards


  • Educators/Teachers
  • Students in Science
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology–History.
  • Women scientists.
  • Women—History.
  • Environmental studies.
  • Chemistry–Study and teaching.


Photos taken from:

Hunt, Caroline. The Life of Ellen Richards: 1842-1911.Boston: Whitcomb and Barrows, 1912. pp. 88,102, 136, 320.

Pond Scum: Sophia Smith Collection. Ellen Swallow Richards gathering the scum on Jamaica Pond, Boston, Ma., 1901.

Plastic Bottles : James Owen.“Bottled Water Isn’t Healthier Than Tap, Report Reveals”. National Geographic News February 24, 2006


MIT Women’s Lab:

Biographical info:

Learn chemical properties:

Chlorine poisoning:


bottle vs tap water: