Ellen Swallow Richards part 2-elements of leadership

Ellen Swallow Richards part 2-elements of leadership

Ellen Henrietta (Swallow) Richards, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) instructor in chemistry, the first president of the American Home Economics Association, and the recognized founder of the profession we now call family and consumer sciences, personified six elements of a leader. The first three were covered in the April 2003 issue.

Awareness Ellen was aware of everything throughout her life from the day she was born until the day she passed away. She appeared to always be on the cutting edge- ranging from her love of the natural sciences to the tiniest of problems, such as how much energy it takes to cook a particular item of food. It was by her awareness she earned the name “Ellencyclopedia.”

It was during this time she helped women around the country become mindful, informed and intrigued by their surroundings. In 1886, Ellen created a new section in the Society, Sanitary Science, because of an increase in the standardization of water, gas, and electricity in the home. As a result of nearly 15 years of analyzing these new technologies in her own home, she was aware that housekeepers “did not understand what dangers and difficulties attend the ignorant use of the new arrangement” (Hunt, 1912, p. 167). She encouraged many states and universities to add domestic science to their curriculum.

Encouragement of the Heart and Body People may say Ellen was not a very empathic person. The truth is she was a woman who reached out to many people, whether it was to help them stay healthy or to understand their feelings.

Before Ellen left for Vassar, she was a volunteer nurse. One boy who was impressed by her nursing care said she was, “wonderful, cheerfulness and hopefulness when everybody else about the house was anxious and depressed” (Hunt, 1912, p.33). Ellen was also a nurse to her father when he was badly injured and she spent a large portion of her life caring for her mother.

Empathy, the understanding of another person’s feelings, was yet another quality Ellen developed during her life. She always seemed able to place herself in the “shoes” of the individuals who came to her for help. After she married Professor Richards, she spent her Monday evenings “reading popular treatises on science, periodicals, and books of travel” (Hunt, 1912, p.125) to his invalid Uncle Richard, who also had an interest in the progress of science. When she was unable to do so, she would write a letter to him explaining her work.

During family reunions, she would fill her house with guests, including her own bedroom because she said, “They can all see each other more comfortably here, and some of them might find the expenses of a hotel difficult to meet” (Hunt, 1912, p. 128).

Persuasion Ellen was a silent persuader. She had a power to change the thinking of many people, inspiring many to support the education of women.

Ellen persuaded and taught students to keep meticulous documentation of experiments. She persuaded them that near-perfect records would simplify life and increase their credibility.

An example of her dynamic persuasion was when Miss B.T. Capen decided to start a women’s chemistry lab/department at MIT, where both were employed. MIT offered a women’s chemistry course, but due to lack of funds, the course was canceled. Ellen and Miss B.T. Capen saw and heard a need for the chemistry course from women across the nation. Ellen worked on the program’s development and each time she came before the Women’s Education Association, she had new statistics defending the program, which resulted in more funding. Over time, the Association established scholarships and grants for tuition and related expenses for the women to participate in this program. While Ellen and Miss B.T. Capen were constructing this laboratory, MIT was financially stressed and the school was in danger of closing. Ellen felt so strongly about the program for female scientists that she went seven years without any salary just to keep the school’s program (Hunt, 1912).

Ellen was a persuader at the Lake Placid Conference. She and eleven other teachers, authors, and lecturers worked together to understand and release the pressures of the Industrial Revolution. Ellen had a plan when she invited all the members but she never spoke of her plan until the very end. Ellen was conscious that she was not strong in all the areas of the soon-to-be defined field of home economics. She was very strong in chemistry and the management of a home but she lacked knowledge in child-rearing and family management. When she invited people to attend the Conferences, she contemplated many of her weaknesses and sought power players to balance the equation of formulating the field of study (Hunt, 1912).

Ellen had the ability to bring together great thoughts, inspire people and create new ideas. As students, we reflected on Ellen’s elements of leadership. She was a servant leader, a participatory leader, and a transformational leader. As a chemist she knew how to combine great formulas of ideas and people. She left us a legacy of diamonds. Her vision, listening skills, stewardship, empathy, persuasion, and awareness combined to create her style of leadership. Her culture provided the heat of critique and urgency, but it was her ideas and passion that resulted in a new field of study, new answers to environmental problems, and a vision for a culture unified by a common desire for a high quality life.

Editor’s Note: Students at the University of Wisconsin-Stout became Ellen Swallow Richards enthusiasts during 2002. Jennie Paulson, Arlene Welcher, Angela Hansen, Lori Pfund, and Timothy Marx researched her life and made presentations about her. Part I of this installment appeared in the April 2003 issue.


Hunt. C. L. (1912). The life of Ellen H. Richards. Boston: Whitcomb & Barrows.

University of Wisconsin-Stout (2000). The elements of leadership. Adapted from UW-L WURHA ’95.

Copyright American Association of Family & Consumer Sciences Sep 2003

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