“The woman who founded ecology” connected science with public health. She did this at a time when nobody knew much about public health and when the cards were stacked against a female scientist.
“She was a model for getting science into the world,” says a fellow Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) alumna.
Here’s how she did it:
Born poor, Richards earned $300 to enroll at Vassar at age 25. She excelled in chemistry and astronomy, and MIT invited her to study there, with a catch.
MIT waived her tuition, but to avoid a flap over admitting a woman, called Richards a “special student” who never really enrolled. Eventually, she earned bachelor’s degrees from both Vassar and MIT, and a master’s from Vassar.
Next, MIT blocked Richards from pursuing advanced studies because it didn’t want a woman to earn the school’s first doctorate in chemistry. Instead, Richards took a research job there with no pay. Her doggedness finally paid off. By 1883, MIT began admitting women.
The following year, Richards started work at a new MIT lab for sanitation chemistry—finally with a salary—and the Massachusetts Board of Health hired her to study water quality, the first research of its kind. Because of her work, the state built the nation’s first modern sewage treatment plant.
In 1892, Richards introduced the word “ecology” to the English language to describe the relationship between living things and their environments. She also helped found Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, developed the New England Kitchen to spread basic knowledge about culinary hygiene and home economics, organized conferences and wrote books.
“If the environment is good, so be it,” she said. “But if it is poor, so is the quality of life within it.”
Bottom line: Richards surmounted serious obstacles, becoming a role model for generations.
—Adapted from “Healthy World, Healthy Lives,” J. Bonasia, Investor’s Business Daily.