Ellen Henrietta Swallow Richards was born Dec. 2, 1842 in Dunstable Mass. to a family of modest means; her father ran a neighborhood general store and she assisted him while attending Westford Academy. She went on to Vassar College concentrating on chemistry and astronomy. Her plan was to teach astronomy in Argentina but was prevented from going by a civil war in that country so she applied to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) instead. She was accepted "without charge" as a special student in chemistry.
While there she fell in love with her Professor, Robert Hallowell Richards who was a leader in the metallurgical and mining science. He actually proposed to her in the lab. They were married in 1875. Ellen assisted him in a project over two years that experimented with various methods of concentrating copper ore, for which she became the first woman elected to the American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers.
She was a proponent of science education for women and asked the Women's Education Association of Boston to fund a women's lab at MIT. She ran the lab for eight years (1875 to 1883) teaching chemical analysis, industrial chemistry, mineralogy and biology.
In 1884, MIT established a chemical lab for the study of sanitation and Ellen was appointed as full professor in sanitary chemistry, a position she held for the next twenty seven years. In 1908, she was chosen the first president of the newly formed American Home Economics Association. She served on the board of trustees of Vassar College for many years and was granted an honorary doctor of science degree in 1910. She died in 1911 at the age of sixty eight, at her home in Jamaica Plain, Mass.