Emma Willard School graduates have served and shaped the world for decades, but in some cases, they haven’t always been given their due credit at the time. Eunice Foote, an attendee of the Troy Female Seminary from 1836-38, was one such woman. She was a pioneer of climate change research in the 1800s.
Climate change is a certainty in 2018, but not when Eunice Foote was researching what would later be known as the greenhouse effect in her paper “Circumstances Affecting the Heat of the Sun’s Rays,” which was presented at the Eighth Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in August 1856.
Smithsonian Magazine describes this particular meeting of the AAAS as failing “to deliver papers of quality”—with one notable exception—Foote’s paper. In her two-page work, she describes an experiment she conducted to understand how the sun’s rays interacted with different gases. She took two cylinders containing two thermometers each and used an air pump to remove the air from one while condensing it in the other.
After allowing both cylinders to reach the same temperature, Foote placed them both in the sun to monitor temperature changes. She repeated the process with hydrogen, common air, and CO2, and found that all heated after being in the sun.
Foote noticed that the carbon dioxide trapped the most heat, leading her to argue in her AAAS paper that “an atmosphere of that gas would give our earth a high temperature... at one period of its history the air had mixed with it a larger proportion than at present, an increased temperature from its own action as well as from increased weight must have necessarily resulted.”
Although women were allowed to join the AAAS as “science enthusiasts” at the time (Foote was the second woman member of the AAAS), they were not allowed to present their own works, so Foote’s findings were shared by Professor Joseph Henry of the Smithsonian. Frustratingly, her work was later left out of the published proceeding of the event, aside from a reference in a section titled “Lady Science” in a Scientific American report on the meeting which appeared in the American Journal of Science and the Arts.
Foote’s contributions went unacknowledged until 2016 when the American Journal of Science and the Arts was digitized, and climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe discovered Foote’s work.
Today Irish physicist John Tyndall is credited with the foundation of what is known as climate science. Three years after Foote, Tyndall published similar results demonstrating the greenhouse effect of different gases, including carbonic acid.
While it is true that Tyndall’s work has been integral to current climate science, Foote’s findings were relevant but ultimately ignored because of her gender. Thank you, Eunice for showing us that “patience rejoices in adversity.”