December 3, 1842: Birth of Ellen Swallow Richards; 1907: Definition of Sanitary Engineer

Ellen Swallow RichardsDecember 3, 1842: Ellen Swallow Richards was born. “Ellen Swallow Richards is perhaps best known as MIT’s first female graduate and instructor, but launching coeducation at the Institute is merely the first in a long list of her pioneering feats. The breadth and depth of her career are astounding; a 1910 tribute in La Follette’s Weekly Magazine professed that ‘when one attempts to tell of the enterprises, apart from her formal teaching, of which Mrs. Richards has been a part or the whole, he is lost in a bewildering maze.’ Authors and scholars have called her the founder of ecology, the first female environmental engineer, and the founder of home economics. Richards opened the first laboratory for women, created the world’s first water purity tables, developed the world standard for evaporation tests on volatile oils, conducted the first consumer-product tests, and discovered a new method to determine the amount of nickel in ore. And that’s just the short list of her accomplishments. In a nod to Richards’s remarkable knowledge and interests, her sister-in-law called her ‘Ellencyclopedia….’

Ellen Swallow Richards

MIT Laboratory with Normal Chlorine Map for Massachusetts on the Wall

Richards’s research on water quality was even more far-reaching. In 1887 [William R.] Nichols’s successor [Thomas M. Drown] put her in charge of implementing an extensive sanitary survey of Massachusetts inland waters, again for the board of health. The two-year study was unprecedented in scope. Richards supervised the collection and analysis of 40,000 water samples from all over the state–representing the water supply for 83 percent of the population. She personally conducted at least part of the analysis on each sample; the entire study involved more than 100,000 analyses. In the process, she developed new laboratory equipment and techniques, meticulously documenting her findings. Instead of merely recording the analysis data, she marked each day’s results on a state map–and noticed a pattern. By plotting the amount of chlorine in the samples geographically, she produced the famous Normal Chlorine Map, an indicator of the extent of man-made pollution in the state. The survey produced her pioneering water purity tables and led to the first water quality standards in the United States. Her biographer, Caroline Hunt, contends that the study was Richards’s greatest contribution to public health.”

Commentary: There is a rich body of information about the life Ellen Swallow Richards. A video on YouTube with ESR expert Joyce B. Miles narrating is particularly interesting. Below is the Normal Chlorine Map from a book by Ellen Swallow Richards. It shows that chloride concentrations in ground and surface waters increase as one nears the coastline of the Atlantic Ocean. Any significant deviations from the “normal” levels of chloride in a water source indicated sewage contamination.

1203-normal-chlorine-map-thomas-m-drown-ellen-swallow-richardsReferences: Durant, Elizabeth. (2007). “Ellencyclopedia.” MIT Technology Review. August 15, 2007.

sanitary engineering

Mahoning Co. Ohio Sanitary Engineering

December 3, 1907: Address of President of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. During his address on the function of engineering society, he gave a succinct definition of the sanitary engineer. “The sanitary engineer is a specialist in hydraulic engineering in the applications of water supply and drainage as means to secure the well being of the community as respects its public health. His field expands from that of the wise precautions respecting the piping of the individual house, where he touches the craftsmanship of the plumber, up to the broadest problems of sewage disposal and utilization, and the healthful supply of potable water for cities, free from bacterial or inorganic pollution at its source or in transit. His co-workers are the bacteriologist and the physician. It would seem more serviceable however for the purpose in hand to group such men with what are hereafter to be called the civil engineers.” (Hutton 1907)

In an article published two years later, a suggested list of courses for the well-trained sanitary engineer was recommended. “In order to be able to make use of the forces of nature for the promotion of the comfort, health and welfare of mankind, it is necessary to study and to become conversant with them; hence, training in the natural sciences and in mathematics forms the basis of sanitary as well as of all other branches of engineering. The study should include mathematics (arithmetic, algebra, geometry, trigonometry and stereometry), astronomy and descriptive geometry; likewise, the physical sciences, mechanics and dynamics, hydrostatics and hydraulics, aerostatics and aerodynamics; the theory of heat, optics, acoustics, magnetism and electricity. It is also necessary for the engineer to have some knowledge of meteorology, climatology, physical geography, mineralogy and geology; furthermore, of general chemistry, metallurgy, and, in particular, of chemical technology. The study of botany, of the trees of commerce and of forestry, is also useful in many ways. In none of these studies, however, can the young engineer student expect to become complete master; even in mathematics, which is to the engineer the basis of all learning, he cannot expect to cover the whole field….

The course of study in sanitary engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston is essentially one in civil engineering, with special attention devoted to sanitary chemistry and sanitary biology, and including some practice in the laboratories.” (Gerhard 1909)


Gerhard, William P. (1909). Sanitation and Sanitary Engineering. New York:Gerhard (self published), 8 & 10.

Hutton, Frederick R. 1907. “The Mechanical Engineer and the Function of the Engineering Society.” Proceedings of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. 29:6, 597-632.


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