“Find something you love to do more than you love yourself.”
What are the drivers of success? The first thing we think of is abilities and disabilities, but that’s what matters least.
In 1842, when Ellen Swallow was born, girls weren’t expected to have careers and they certainly weren’t expected to become scientists. Change can be slow, but Ellen Swallow helped speed it up by opening doors for women.
Educated at home until she was sixteen, Ellen’s first school was Westford Academy, Massachusetts’ first co-educational secondary school. Upon graduating, she was determined to further her education, particularly in the sciences. No New England College offered science to women at that time, but Ellen discovered that Vassar College in New York State did. It took Ellen three years to earn enough money to attend Vassar. Once accepted, she took as many classes in science as was possible and graduated in just two years with a degree in chemistry.
Searching for work, she found that no one wanted to hire a female scientist. Rather than give up, she sought more education, this time at MIT. She was the first female to attend that institution. In her own words, she wrote, “I was at that time shut-up in the professors’ private laboratory, very much like a dangerous animal might have been … I was not then allowed to attend any classes.” Ellen completed the required work for a Ph.D., however, the Institute did not want to award its first doctorate to a woman.
But she made herself valuable, and it soon became clear what an asset she was. To the faculty, she was considered remarkable. The Board of Trustees agreed, but considered Ellen unique and made no plans to admit more females.
Determined to hold the door of MIT open for women, Ellen established a Women’s Laboratory. With no financial assistance from MIT, she traveled to Germany and acquired the necessary scientific equipment. For seven years she taught science in a dilapidated building behind MIT, known as “the dump.” Finally, the decision was made to admit women to MIT and to hire Ellen as an instructor. By this time, Ellen had married Professor Robert Richards, head of the Mining Engineering Department.
Ellen Swallow Richards strived to teach others about the importance of the health of our planet and its people. She introduced the term “ecology” and was a pioneer in environmental studies. She taught marine biology and was co-founder of what is now the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole. She was active in our country’s first long-distance learning program, helping people throughout North America learn science. She was responsible for the work done in two important water studies, leading to better sanitary conditions and to the first water quality standards. Ellen did the first food testing, which resulted in the uncovering of countless food adulterations. Her research led to the nation’s first Food and Drug Acts. She opened a health food store/restaurant in Boston and taught the public about nutrition. She also used her health food facility to provide school lunches for students in Boston. Representing Massachusetts, she also ran a health food restaurant at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. In two months she enlightened and fed lunches to more than 10,000 fair goers.
The American Association gave Ellen the status of “Fellow” for the Advancement of Science. She was the first woman elected to the American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers. She was the first president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Women’s Association and its unpaid Dean of Women. With her former student, Marion Talbot, she co-founded The American Association of University Women. For ten years she headed the Home Economics meetings at Lake Placid and was elected the organization’s first president in 1908. Theodore Roosevelt hosted a reception at the White House honoring this new organization.
Ellen Swallow! What an inspiration. But if we see Ellen’s success as a function of her obvious academic ability, we miss the inspiration. Ellen created a wonderful life, but not because of “ability” but because she faced challenges with courage, patience, persistence, and determination. She treated other people with charity and forgiveness, and whatever the opposition she “kept on keeping on.”
Furthermore, if we see these disciplines as “character traits,” we might very well miss seeing the possibility that each of us can practice these disciplines, create the life we are intended to create, and make the difference we want to make.
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