A tiny Crack in Male-dominated Science

In the 1850s, a natural philosopher (amateur scientist) studied the effects of the sun’s heat. Hers were early, perhaps even the first experiments ever done on Earth’s greenhouse effect. Despite the limitations 19th century society put on Eunice Newton Foote, she made a tiny crack in male-dominated science.

graphic representation of Eunice Newton Foote shows a female profile with a pilgrim-style bonnet covering most of her face.

Early life

In 1819 in Goshen, Connecticut, Isaac Newton Jr. and Thirza Newton had a daughter they named Eunice. Eunice, her six sisters, five brothers, and her parents moved to Bloomington, New York.

At seventeen, she went to Troy Female Seminary. Being a student there allowed her to study the basics of chemistry and biology at a local science college.

On August 12, 1841, she married Elisha Foote. They lived in Seneca Falls and later in Saratoga, New York. They had two daughters.

Women’s Rights

While living in Seneca Falls, Eunice Newton attended the first Woman’s Rights Convention on July 19-20, 1848. She signed the convention’s Declaration of Sentiments written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The document demanded equality with men in social status and legal rights.

Research

Apollo 17, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In the 1850s, Foote conducted her experiments. She used an air pump, four mercury thermometers, and two glass cylinders. She put a thermometer in each glass cylinder. Then she pumped the air out of one cylinder and compressed the air in the other. She used carbon dioxide, common air, and hydrogen. When both cylinder reached the same temperature, she set them in the sun. She measured the temperature in the cylinders and recorded how long it took to reach maximum temperature. And she made a discovery.

“The receiver containing this gas (carbon dioxide) became itself much heated—very sensibly more so than the other—and on being removed [from the Sun], it was many times as long in cooling.”

Climate.gov

After only basic chemistry and biology classes, she hypothesized that Earth would have been much warmer in the past if its carbon dioxide levels were higher. 

Recognition

She wrote a report on her experiments and hypotheses. Joseph Henry presented that report on August 23, 1856, at the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

The AAAS was all male until 1850. They allowed females and amateurs to be members but not a “professional” or a “fellow.”

The September 1856 issue of Scientific American featured Foote’s work. In an article titled “Scientific Ladies—Experiments with Condensed Gases,” the author wrote, “the experiments of Mrs. Foote afford abundant evidence of the ability of woman to investigate any subject with originality and precision.”

She accomplished this three years before Irish physicist John Tyndall’s famous experiments. We don’t know if he knew about Foote’s experiments.

A Woman’s Work

Kudos to the folks who uncovered the documents about Eunice Newton Foote. What we know about her makes one wonder how much more she could have done with the proper education and support. A strong woman, she wasn’t loud; she didn’t make a tremendous splash, but she made a tiny crack in male-dominated science. 

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