Ellen Swallow Richards: Mother of American ecology?
Over 100 years ago, Ellen Richards first proposed ‘Human Ecology’ as a form of enquiry seeking the ‘knowledge of right living’. Born in Massachusetts USA in 1842, Richards was the first woman graduate of MIT, graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry in 1873. Further higher studies resulted in her obtaining Masters, but the award of a PhD was beyond what MIT at that time was prepared to confer on a woman. Her disciplinary expertise was in industrial chemistry, but she had broader interests in social movements of the day, including women’s issues and progressive social change more generally. In 1892 she used Haeckel’s term ecology (then ‘oekology’) to mean the science of the environmental conditions suited to human wellbeing. Her key insight was that social conditions create environmental outcomes that feedback to reinforce the social conditions, resulting in ‘traps’ of poverty, ill health, and poor environmental standards. Knowledge, particularly among women, was the key to escaping these traps. She elaborated her new discipline as ‘human ecology’ in 1907 - a subject she claimed would be the ‘worthiest of all the applied sciences, which teaches the principles on which to found a healthy and happy life‘. However, she soon encountered resistance from the biological sciences to the concept of ‘ecology’ extended to include humans and their social dimensions. Richards was formally prohibited from using the term ‘ecology’ and her contribution is largely forgotten.
Today, ESA seeks to better understand the interplay between humans and their environments, such as through the Planetary Stewardship initiative. It is interesting to speculate where the society would stand on this issue had Richard’s use of the term ‘human ecology’ been allowed greater recognition and influence from the beginning.