Eunice Foote, the first scientist (and suffragist) to theorize climate change


In 1859, Irish physicist John Tyndall was the first to discover that gas molecules like carbon dioxide, methane and water vapor (now called greenhouse gases or GHGs) block infrared radiation. He is considered the first scientist to predict the impacts on climate of small changes in atmospheric composition. At least that is what is taught in science faculties around the world.

Without taking anything away from Tyndall's research or that, later, of Swedish Nobel laureate Steven Arrhenius, to whom attributed to the discovery of the greenhouse effect, contemporary scholars overlook the work of Eunice Newton Foote (1819-1888). According to the account given by Leila McNeill in the Smithsonian, this scientist realized her personal experiences in 1856, three years before Tyndall presented his results and forty before Arrhenius revealed his.

This American is the first scientist to have theorized that even moderate increases in the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere could cause significant global warming.

Since then, this relationship between CO2 and climate has become one of the key tenets of modern meteorology, greenhouse effect and climate science. No one has admitted that Foote was the first to discover it - in addition to having been one of the founders of the Seneca Falls Convention, the first assembly where the rights of women were debated in 1848.

Forgotten for more than 150 years

According to story of McNeill, hundreds of scientists, inventors, and hobbyists gathered on the morning of August 23, 1856, in Albany, New York, for the 8th annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science ( AAAS) – these conferences brought together US scientists to share new discoveries, discuss advances in their respective fields and explore new areas of research. Never had the meeting expected so many participants as on that day.

No study of particular interest was however presented there… with the notable exception of a report, the scientific importance of which went unnoticed until it was Drawn from Oblivion by Raymond P. Sorenson in 2010.

However, the study in question, entitled Circumstances affecting the heat of the sun's rays, was – to everyone's surprise – signed by a woman, Eunice N. Foote.

At that time, women were not allowed to submit reports to the AAAS, so it was Joseph Henry, a professor at the Smithsonian Institution, who presented the work. Neither Foote's paper nor Henry's presentation was recorded in the conference proceedings. In November 1856, theAmerican Journal of Art and Science, a journal of the AAAS, only published a brief page and a half on the subject.



Eunice Newton Foote's article, Circumstances that affect the sun's rays, published in 1857 by theAmerican Journal of Science.

In the volume of 1857 de l 'Annual of Scientific Discovery, journalist David A. Wells publishes a summary of the work. About this annual meeting, he writes:

“Professor Henry then read an article by Ms Eunice Foote, prefacing it with a few words in which she said 'science belongs neither to country nor to sex. The sphere of woman encompasses not only the beautiful and the useful, but also the true.” »

In the September 1956 edition of Scientific American magazineEntitled Scientific Ladies, a column praised Foote for translating his beliefs into action:

“Some have not only retained, but also expressed, the disastrous idea according to which women do not possess the mental strength necessary for scientific research. […] Ms. Foote's experiments amply prove the ability of women to study any subject with originality and precision. »

homemade science

Foote's pioneering experiment was ingeniously 'homegrown'. Using four thermometers, two glass cylinders and a vacuum pump, she isolated the gases that make up the atmosphere and exposed them to sunlight, both in direct sunlight and in shade. .

By measuring the change in their temperatures, she discovered that CO2 and water vapor absorbed enough heat to affect the climate:

“A CO2 atmosphere would increase the temperature of our Earth; and if, as some suppose, at a period of its history, the air had mixed with CO2 in greater proportions than today […] it must necessarily result in a higher temperature. »

At that time, Foote was years ahead of the science of his time. What she described and theorized was none other than the gradual warming of the Earth's atmosphere, what is now called the greenhouse effect.

She did so three years before John Tyndall, whose more sophisticated experiments demonstrated conclusively that the Earth's greenhouse effect comes from water vapor and other gases like CO2, which absorb and emit thermal infrared energy. In its publication, Tyndall did not mention Foote. It is unclear whether he was familiar with his work or whether he deemed it irrelevant.

according to Roland Jackson, it is likely that he was unaware of Foote's work.

“Direct scientific communication between the two sides of the Atlantic was rare during the 1850s, and since American scientific institutions had relatively little weight in Europe, personal relations were of particular importance”.

It is unlikely that a passionate American scientist living near Albany in the middle of the XNUMXth century would therefore have had links with prestigious foreign researchers. And this despite Foote's upbringing, eccentric for his time. According to John Perlin, who campaigned for years to restore Foote to the history of science:

“During his teenage years, Foote attended the Troy Female Seminary, whose students were invited to attend science lectures, in a school that later became the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, founded by Amos Eaton, a former president sentenced to life for fraud and then released after 4 years to continue his work as an apostle of science education. »

Eaton was convinced that men and women should have equal access to science education: a wild idea in the early 19th century. To achieve his goal, he relied on Emma Hart-Willard, the founding teacher of the Troy Female Seminary, an educator and activist who developed the first science curriculum for women, as good or better than any other dedicated to men. Eaton also designed the construction of chemistry laboratories in both institutions, which were the first in the world built exclusively for female students. It was there that Eunice developed her skills in experimental science.

For a woman like Eunice Foote, who was also an activist in the women's rights movement, it must not have been nice to be left out of the presentation of her own discovery. The Road to Seneca Falls by Judith Wellman shows that Foote signed the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments of 1848, and was designated alongside the famous activist and abolitionist Elizabeth Cady Stanton to edit the acts of the Convention intended for publication.

Like many other scientists whom history has forgotten, her fate illustrates the forms of discrimination that have long kept women in the back room of science.

Foote's work on greenhouse gases does not replace that of Tyndall, who had a fully equipped laboratory and whose findings as a whole have been more relevant to current science. But including his 1856 research in the history of climate science is also a way of remembering that the path to understanding human interactions with the atmosphere has been the result of an ongoing effort for more than a century and a half.

And that it was a woman who paved the way.

Manuel Peinado Lorca, Catedrático de Universidad. Director of the Real Botanical Garden of the Universidad de Alcalá, University of Alcalá

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.


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