The scientific habit of mind: Ellen H. Richards and the adult education movement

Rustynne Collette Dalton


Ellen H. Richards is absent from the field of adult education; how this important American scientist, educator, nutritionist, and author became, academically, persona non grata is discussed in this dissertation. Richards' work emphasized mankind's inextricable interaction with the environment--the forces of nature, as well as the microcosms of community and home. Her milieu was one of staggering infant and child mortality, and infirmity and disability to an adult population of which 45 was elderly, not middle aged. Richards believed that the application of scientific principles to current issues of health, education, and welfare would prevent much illness and death. Richards' first foray into adult education was the Society to Encourage Studies at Home, a cornerstone in the development of correspondence education in the United States. To this unique program Richards contributed scientific courses of study designed to be interesting, relevant, and readable. Richards expanded her adult education activities by creating the Women's Laboratory. The Women's Laboratory served three groups of women learners: professionals seeking scientific education applicable to their careers; women needing scientific education pursuant to gaining higher education; and those laypersons eager to learn science for personal development. Richards moved beyond "gender-specific" educational efforts by founding the New England Kitchen movement as a public "nutritional experiment station." In this context, she demonstrated that nutritious meals could be concocted inexpensively and hygienically using unadulterated, pathogen-free groceries. Although the New England Kitchen movement failed to initiate the sweeping changes Richards had envisioned, she refused to quit. Richards redirected her energies, organizing the scattered fragments of a study of the home into a systematic field of study. Richards' campaign to popularize the field of home economics through the Lake Placid Conferences and the American Home Economics Association has direct bearing on the field of adult education--her efforts led to the inclusion of a home economist in the Cooperative Extension Service structure (a policy, unfortunately, she did not live to see): one of many of Richards' lasting contributions to the field.