Contextualizing Ellen H. Richards: America’s Forgotten First Lady of Science and Nutrition

Student Author(s)

Madalyn Northuis

Faculty Mentor(s)

Dr. Jeanne Petit; Dr. Anne Heath; Professor Priscilla Atkins

Document Type


Event Date



Food industry practices have been under increasing scrutiny over the past fifteen years. Unsavory relationships between government and food industry officials have led to instances of lax policies and poor practices. Ultimately, the consumers pay for these "private pacts" with their health. Today’s heightened attention to food production, nutrition, and public health has a notable antecedent in the work of Progressive Era activist, Ellen H. Richards (1842-1911), the most prominent female chemist of the Progressive Era (1890-1920). While attending MIT (1870-1873), Richards’s interest in nutrition developed into a vocational calling. After graduation, she set out to save society from their nutritional ignorance one book and one meal at a time. Because her attempts were numerous, this project and exhibit focuses on her efforts to raise awareness about adulterated food products and to improve the dietary habits of children through school lunch programs. Although Richards’s contribution to the field of nutrition was substantial, scholars have focused on the accomplishments of her male contemporaries, such as Edward Atkinson, Robert Hunter, and Upton Sinclair. The goal of this project and exhibition is to reinsert Richards into the history of Progressive Era nutrition reforms. Reexamining this topic will not only provide a better understanding of the comprehensive effort to prevent food adulterations and improve people’s nutritional habits throughout the Progressive Era, but it may also provide a better understanding of America’s current nutrition movements and laws.

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