Miss Mitchell’s Students: Ellen Swallow Richards

Standing under the canopy of the stars, you can scarcely do a petty deed or think a wicked thought.

Maria Mitchell’s influence reached far and wide and remained strong through many generations of not just her own students but the students of her students.  Her immediate galaxy was of course the women who took her astronomy and mathematics classes at Vassar College.  She instilled in her students a lifelong love of learning and the knowledge that as women, they had the power, strength, and knowledge to be the future of women scientists and educators in the world.  Some would go on to great accomplishments and some would go on to quietly influence other young learners of the world – spreading Maria’s legacy farther afield.

Over the next few blogs, I would like to share with you some of Maria Mitchell’s students.

The fourth is:

Ellen Swallow Richards, 1842-1911

Swallow Richards entered Vassar at the age of twenty-six – not uncommon for women attending the first women’s colleges – as a third year.  She graduated in 1870 having only had formal schooling starting at age sixteen.  A student of Maria’s – who recognized her ability and promise for science innovation – Ellen found her calling in chemistry which led her to MIT.  All other schools had denied her entry based on her sex but MIT reluctantly accepted her as a test – to “ascertain women’s ability in the sciences.”  In 1873, she received a Bachelor of Science from MIT and Vassar bestowed a Master of Arts on her at the same time.  Together with her husband, Robert Hallowell Richards, a MIT professor of mining, they used their home as a laboratory for devising home efficiencies.  She would head a lab for women at MIT which focused on studying “sanitary chemistry.”  Her work made her the founder of the home economics movement and during her life she published seventeen books on home economics and sanitation; including the first health food cookbook published in the U.S.  She also organized the first school lunch programs, created exhibits on home economics for several world fairs, and introduced healthy and inexpensive cooking to Boston’s immigrant communities.



Recognize this Building?

Boston Public LibraryWhile it’s not on Nantucket it was designed, in part, by a descendant of a long-standing Nantucket family. He was a senior architect for McKim, Mead, and White (MMW) which designed this building. The senior architect was named after his grandfather – William Mitchell. It is William Mitchell Kendall (1856 – 1941), the son of Phebe Mitchell and Joshua Kendall and the nephew of Maria Mitchell. A graduate of MIT, Kendall was a long-time supporter of the MMA, leaving Mitchell family pieces including the family’s tall case clock and Lydia Coleman Mitchell’s childhood sampler to the Mitchell House in his estate. He travelled through Europe with his parents and Maria in 1873 and today we have the notes from his travels during that trip – his focus? Architecture of course!

Kendall was known for continuing the firm’s traditions of Renaissance and classical forms after the death of White. Kendall designed the American Academy in Rome; the New York Post Office; the New York Municipal Building; the Arlington Memorial Bridge in Washington, D.C.; and the surround at Plymouth Rock to name a few. The well-known quote from Herodotus on the façade of the NY Post Office was translated by Kendall and used at his suggestion. Does that little line about the post office delivering in rain, sleet, and snow sound familiar?

William Mitchell Kendall

The building in this image is located in Boston – it’s the Boston Public Library built in 1895 with the work of senior partner William Mitchell Kendall. I like to think that he had a little something to do with making sure his aunt was on a tablet there with all of the other famous scientists, artists, and others whose names are carved into the window tablets around the BPL. Even more fitting? That Maria’s name is under that of Mary Somerville’s – one of her heroes and someone Maria met on her first trip to Europe in the 1850s.