Nearly lost to history is the original name of Mansfield University’s Alumni House. Currently, Alumni House, as its name implies, serves as offices for the Mansfield University Foundation. In addition, there are three rooms available for alumni to use during visits to their alma mater. But this was not the building’s original purpose nor is “Alumni House” its original name.
Originally, the house, which was once privately owned, probably stood on the west side of Clinton Street near the exit of the parking lot of Laurel Hall. It was later moved to its present location, next to Beecher House. In 1966, the building was officially designated the “Ellen H. Richards” house and, like Beecher House, was used as a home management laboratory for the home economics department. In both buildings, home economics students received practical training in that field of study.
Ellen Henrietta Swallow Richards never visited Mansfield, Pa. However, her contributions to the field of home economics, and consequently to one of Mansfield’s most important programs, were evident. Like Catharine Beecher (Beecher House), Ellen Richards was an early pioneer in the field that is now called “home economics.”
Ellen H. Swallow was born in Dunstable, Mass. near the New Hampshire border. She was the only child of well-educated parents, Peter and Fanny Swallow. In 1859, the family moved to nearby Westford where Peter opened a store. Ellen helped at the store and studied mathematics, French, and Latin at a local academy. Four years later, the family moved to Worchester and Ellen was able to attend a few lectures there.
Young Ellen longed to continue her formal education, but the family did not have the money to spare. Ellen saved enough money from her own teaching and was able to enroll at Vasser College in 1868 when she was 25 years old. While at the women’s college, Ellen developed an interest and aptitude for science, particularly astronomy and chemistry.
Two years later, Ellen graduated from Vasser and searched for a job in the chemistry field. In those days, however, there were no jobs for a woman chemist and she decided to further her education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She chose to study chemistry rather than astronomy, thinking that the former field offered greater opportunities for public service.
In 1870, according to MIT’s website, the trustees of that school voted to allow Miss Swallow to enroll as a special student, which would not set a precedent to allow future female students to enroll. According to another website called “Mass. Moments” her tuition was waived. At first she thought this was a generous gesture, only later learning that it meant MIT could claim she was not really a student should any of the trustees object to her presence on campus. She graduated with a bachelor’s of science degree in 1873, just five years after MIT’s first graduation, and continued studying there for the next two years.
After completing her studies at MIT, Ellen Swallow continued her association with the institute for the remainder of her life. During that period, the trustees of MIT apparently had a change of heart about educating women and soon started allowing females to enroll.
On June 4, 1875 Ellen married Robert Richards, another professor at MIT. Three days later, they took a wedding trip to Nova Scotia along with his mine engineering class. The marriage would prove to be a happy one and Ellen used her language skills to help Robert keep up with German and French advances in the mining and metallurgical fields, according to Mass Moments. The couple did not have children, but often hosted MIT students, especially the female students.
Ellen’s first major contribution to MIT was the foundation of a women’s laboratory that operated between 1876 and 1883. Established with the help of the Women’s Education Association of Boston, the laboratory offered women a chance to improve their science education. Ellen assisted the professor who ran the laboratory. The women’s laboratory closed in 1883 when MIT allowed all students, regardless of gender, to use the regular labs. The following year, Ellen Richards was appointed instructor of sanitary chemistry at MIT and held that position for the rest of her life.
While teaching and researching at MIT, Richards devoted a lot of time and energy to the domestic science movement, now called home economics. Her research solidified the connection between illness and exposure to contaminated food, water, and air.
In addition to teaching at MIT Mrs. Richards wrote numerous papers on sanitation, proper nutrition, and the family. She was also heavily involved in the first survey of the water quality of Massachusetts, which analyzed 20,000 water samples. At the time, that was the largest such project ever undertaken. She also served as a chemist and later water analyst to the state board of health. Between 1884 and 1894, she was a chemist to the Manufacturers Mutual Fire Insurance Co., where she studied the dangers of various chemicals used in industry.
She finally received her doctorate, although it was honorary, from Smith College in 1910. The following year, she passed away at her home in Jamaica Plains, Mass. at the age of 68.