Chemist and engineer was MIT’s first female student and faculty member
“I wish I were triplets,” Ellen Swallow said as a newly arrived but belated Vassar College undergraduate, dreaming at 25 of making up for lost time. By the time she died at 68 of heart disease in 1911, she had built a career as a chemist and engineer that smashed gender barriers and would have filled a half-dozen résumés. Slight, bright-eyed, and dark-browed, with a quizzical, crooked expression, Ellen Swallow was a one-woman parade of firsts: first female student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, first female fellow of the American Association of Mining and Metallurgy, first female professor at MIT. She invented the word “euthenics,” meaning the science of environmental management. When eugenics—controlled breeding of humans—was all the rage as a path to better living, Swallow posited a holistic understanding of environmental conditions as the key to health. Colleagues credited her with establishing the academic discipline of home economics, a line of study that helped households run healthfully and efficiently. Swallow founded what became the American Association for University Women, as well as a seaside lab that evolved into the prestigious Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.