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Ellen Henrietta Swallow – MIT’s First Woman Student

In the late 1800s, Ellen Henrietta Swallow broke down barriers to women not by casting off the duties assigned to them, but by embracing them.

“Perhaps the fact that I am not a radical and that I do not scorn womanly duties but claim it as a privilege to clean up and sort of supervise the room and sew things is winning me stronger allies than anything else,” she wrote to her parents.

Born in 1842 in Dunstable, Mass., Swallow began adulthood on a path toward teaching. However, her strong interest in science pulled her in a different direction. She attended Vassar College and obtained a degree in chemistry in 1870 – a first for women.

However, when she sought work in the field as an apprentice at Merrick and Gray in Boston the firm said it did not employ apprentices. Rather, its owners suggested, she should attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (then in Boston) and round out her studies.

ellen henrietta swallow

ellen henrietta swallow in 1864

When the Institute admitted Swallow in 1870 – its first female student – it noted that it wasn’t necessarily setting a precedent that it was a co-educational college. Only that it was admitting a woman in this instance.

Swallow proved a rigorous student, earning MIT’s first degree ever given to a woman. She also won the heart of one of her professors, Robert Hallowell Richards, and the pair married in 1875.

Swallow would write dozens of articles and books on the topic of home economics, known as euthenics, and taught numerous courses on the topic, both in person and via correspondence school. In her work, she brought a scientific approach to analyzing the principles of creating a healthy home – instructing on everything from clean air and water to nutrition.

Yet she always focused on the practical: how to prepare healthy and tasty meals on the lowest budget and how to properly ventilate a home heated by coal.

Swallow would go onto become a key advocate for women, helping to found the American Association of University Women. She also established a field of study called Euthenics, which dealt with all aspects of running a healthy home. The field disintegrated over time, its work falling into ever-more specialized fields, such as childhood learning and environmental sciences.

Swallow died in 1911 at her home in Jamaica Plain.

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