Ellen Swallow Richards
Born in 1842, Ellen Swallow Richards was a chemist and the first woman to attend MIT. Her life’s work focused on applying scientific knowledge to improve the domestic sphere—an area largely untouched by the scientific progress of the day. She was aware that some of the most pressing public health issues such as poor nutrition and unsafe food and water. Richards used chemistry to analyze the nutritional composition of foods, as well as contaminants in food and water, even gathering water samples herself by horseback.
An advocate of science education, she founded MIT’s women’s chemistry lab, where she taught as she continued her research. She also wrote books for the layperson such as The Chemistry of Cooking and Cleaning, established the first major school lunch program in the country, and wrote the USDA’s first nutrition pamphlets. Her work ultimately led to the passage of Massachusetts’ Pure Food and Drug Act, as well as the state’s adoption of water quality standards (the country’s first).
Agnes Fay Morgan
The daughter of Irish immigrants, Agnes Fay Morgan was born in 1884 in Peoria, Illinois, and went on to study chemistry. Despite having no interest in the so-called domestic sciences (unlike Richards), Morgan agreed to teach nutrition at UC Berkeley under the Department of Home Economics due to the limited opportunities for female chemists.
She resolved to raise the bar for nutrition education and required that her undergraduate students learn chemistry, organic chemistry, physiology, and statistics. Also a prolific researcher, Morgan made numerous discoveries that laid the foundation for our understanding of human nutrient requirements. For example, she showed that excess vitamin D leads to brittle bones, that bone density decreases as women age, and that dietary fat intake impacts blood cholesterol levels.