Monday, December 12, 2016

Feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe


No estoy yo aqui que soy tu madre?  Am I not here, I who am your mother? – San Juan Diego of Guadulupe

Today is the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

A young woman appeared in the sixteenth century to Juan Diego on Tepeyac Hill.
 As the story is told she was radiant with light and he was overcome by awe and fear.  She asked the Aztec man to return to his bishop and to tell him that she asks for a chapel to be built in the place that she appeared.  She also told him to climb to the top of the hill and pick of the roses that is growing there and to bring them back to her.  This was in the middle of December in the heart of winter!! It would surely be impossible for roses to be flowering on the top of the hill?  He however did find roses growing on the top of the hill, picked them and brought them back to her.  

She arranged the roses inside his cloak made of rough fibre.  He took these roses to the bishop hoping to prove to him the miracle of the Lady and Her roses that magically appeared in the middle of winter.  When he opened the cloak, the roses spilled out at the bishop’s feet and an image of the woman herself covered the inside of the garment. An even greater miracle than the roses themselves!

 A basilica was built for her on the spot where she appeared and the same image that appeared on the inside of his cloak, is still hanging in the church. Not only does this image still hang in the church, but the cloak that Juan Diego wore, made of rough cactus fibre, is still intact and also still on display.

The Lady of Guadalupe’s cloak is dark like the night sky and covered in stars.  Her robe is a rose colour, similar to a new dawn, and as in all the apparitions of Our Lady, her robe is in the style worn by pregnant mothers. Our Lady of Guadalupe, standing on the moon, upheld by the angels of creation, surrounded by the radiant rays of the sun emanating from her,  is once again ‘the woman clothed in the sun’ Rev. 7:12.  She is the Cosmic Mary Herself cloaked in the constellations and matter of Earth. 

Without the earthly cloak of the Cosmos she would be invisible as each one of us would be invisible.  And she was not the only one wearing a cloak.  Juan Diego also wore a cloak made of the plants of the Earth and this cloak is also miraculously still intact and part of the message of Our Lady of Guadalupe.  The cloaks of earthly matter demonstrate that Juan Diego’s existence is related to the manifestation of the Cosmic Mary.  Both are made of star dust and earthly soil and green plants.  She tells us that there is no separation between spirit and matter and that the one cannot exist without the other.


Monday, November 28, 2016

The Miller's Daughter

The Miller's Daugher
V Holy Rood - Mysteries of Mary Tarot Deck

The Mysteries of Mary Tarot Deck and Book
has been published and is now available on
and also in my shop The French Madonna

You can subscribe to my blog
for regular updates.

A few fairytales are included in the Mysteries of Mary Tarot Deck.  Some of them were chosen as they relate to a specific archetype in both the tarot and the stories of Mary.

The fairy tale of the Handless Maiden was chosen because Mary
appears in an Eastern European folktale version of the story. 
In some versions an angel or a being of light appears to help the 
Handless Maiden, but in this particular folktale, Mary herself appears
to help the maiden.

The story of the Handless Maiden and her powerful symbology is told over a sequence of three cards in the deck.  Links
to different versions of the fairy tale is included
in the bibliography at the back
of the book.  
The V of Holy Rood (traditionally Wands) is the first
card that depicts a scene from the tale.  
This card is titled The Miller's Daughter 
and we are introduced to
the young maiden, her father, the devil 
and very importantly, the apple tree.

The Miller's daughter is standing next to the apple tree with a loaf of bread
(food produced by the miller) on her shoulder.  She, as well as the significant apple
tree represents feminine values and attributes.    Feminine qualities and attributes
live in both male and female.  The story of speaks of the 'miller' and not the maiden's father.
This demonstrates that great importance is given to his occupation in the world, 
rather than his role as father.
From the start we see the focus and emphasis on masculine goals and values.
In our culture the masculine values and attributes are greatly admired and promoted.
The emphasis on the miller, his greed for money, his disregard for both the apple tree
and his daughter, reflects and highlights the imbalance which exists and
the lack of reverence for the less visible feminine principles.

The apple blossom is a symbol of fertility and sensuality.
In Celtic lore the apple tree is the Tree of Love.

At the top of the shrine are two hands.  These will take
you to the next part of the story which is further developed
in VII of Holy Rood,, where the Handless Maiden enters the forest.

Traditionally this card means conflict and in this deck it refers to inner conflict.
The really important questions in life you have to find the answers to
yourself. Do not rely on the opinion of others.  Do not rely
on 'the done thing' or the accepted way of doing.
In other words, do not make a pact with the devil for your most
precious feminine feeling  and earthy nature.
Dig deep and feel the discomfort of the inner conflict
and may you find peace.

This is an extract from the discussion of this card in companion book
to the Mysteries of Mary Tarot Deck


Sunday, August 21, 2016

Tarot Deck of Mysteries of Mary

Maria Prophetissa

the Alchemist in the Mysteries of Mary Deck

The early or even some say, the true first alchemist of the Western world,  was known as Mary or Maria the Jewess, Mary or Miriam the Prophetess and Maria Prophetissa.  She is known as a Jewish alchemist, but is also referred to by other writers and cultures.  She is also known by these names :  Maria Hebraea, Maria Prophetissima and Mariya the Sage; She is known from the works of the Gnostic Christian writer Zosimos of Panopolis who dates her as having lived in the third century.  But others claim that her work was done no later than the first century. Zosimos describes her as one of the sages. 

In alchemy the Axion of Maria exists :  "One becomes two, two becomes three, and out of the third comes the one as the fourth."


Maria holds the hawthorn branch as her magician’s wand.  The magician or alchemist archetype of the deck has all four the elements to her disposable.  Here we see the chalice, pitchers and alchemists' bottles of the suit of vessels and the element of water;  the white hawthorn branch as a symbol of the flowering cross of the tree of life and the element of living fire;  the red thread tied around the wisdom books as the element of air in the suit of the distaff and the red rose from the suit of roses and the element of earth.  The colours of red and white are also significant as these represent the two opposing colours of spirit and matter which has to be unifed into the sacred marriage in order for transformation and new birth within the psyche to take place.

............... Read the complete piece at

Monday, August 1, 2016

A Labour of Love

A small portion of the 78 Tarot Cards

Two years ago I started the project of creating my own tarot deck.  I had the vision of each card being a handcrafted shrine. But I did not want to just emulate the traditional tarot decks based
on the teaching of the Order of the Golden Dawn or Rider-Waite. I wanted to share and highlight my own understanding based on my own experiences.  I saw that this could be a vehicle
for sharing my own teachings and mystical insight into the hidden secrets in religion and the new age.

I took time out from offering classes and retreats through my wisdom school, The Temple of Mary
and I closed my shop on I packed away my paints and canvases and focused solely on creating this deck.
Ace of Vessels
The New Human

And what a labour of love it was.  I loved each and every 
moment of it.  The process was to collate the
many stories of Mary, gathered from folktales,
legend, metaphor and myth, Bible stories
and apocryphal books such as the Proevangelium
of James.

Each shrine consists of a small wooden shrine which contains the miniature diorama of the part of the story that I am depicting.
Card XV Our Lady and the Stag
Through the years I had become a committed
spiritual pilgrim and travel at least once a year
to a sacred site in the world;  especially places
where the Divine had manifested into the physical.
During my travels I collected many bits and pieces
and especially vintage and wonderfully kitsch
(some of them) religious statues.  I wanted these
for my hand crafted shrines and this became a
mission in itself.  I had to make two extra trips to
Europe to source statues and I have spent hours
on the internet buying up these little figurines.
Maria Bambina, Vessel of the Suit of the Distaff

The Tarot deck has 78 cards :
22 Major Arcana cards which are the main archetypal cards followed by the Minor Arcana which are separated into the four suits.

Well, all 78 shrines have been completed!
And my studio have been taken over by them.  All my books and display areas
have been taken over by the shrines.  

This is but a small portion of the shrines and only one wall -
they cover three walls

My vision is to publish the deck with a small accompanying book.
And then to rewrite this book over time into a more expanded version.
So now the next part of this Labour of Love is starting.

If you are interested in following my journey and
learning from my mistakes,
please follow my blog
Higher Mysteries of Mary Tarot Deck

I will be offering the deck for sale in my online
shop The French Madonna
and I will offer special pre-publication offers
as well.

And I am working on some unique jewellery pieces based on the cards in the deck.  I have started with Card XVIII Stella Maris, traditionally The Star.

Higher Mysteries of Mary Tarot Deck

Each pendant will be accompanied by a Tarot Card and its meaning and interpretation, packaged in a special tin or presentation box.

If you would like to stay up to date with my journey and the Higher Mysteries
of Mary tarot deck, you can subscribe to this blog in the side margins
where it says "Follow by email' or you can become
a follower on Google Plus.

I am also on Instagram where I update regularly.


Monday, July 25, 2016

Triumph of the Immaculate Heart

You who radiate peace, dear Mary,
help us to break this obsession with war
and vanquish the culture of death.

Too many people have died, Blessed Mother,
and no amount of official explanations
and strategic manipulations
can possible justify such suffering.

At this very moment, all over the planet,
dozens of battles are raging,
like bursts of flame exploding
from different zones of a forest on fire.

Whether they take the form of the 
massive bloodshed of entire communities
or single acts of domestic violence,
your Mother-Heart will not tolerate such hatred.

You break yourself open
and offer us the only true antidote
to the poison of global strife:
universal love.

The Triumph of the Immaculate Heart
Mother of God
Similar to Fire
Mirabai Starr

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Rosa Mistica

Smaller statue at sacred spring
Rosa Mistica, Fontanelle, Montechiari, Italy

I recently visited Italy and on my list of places that I really wanted to visit
was the Rosa Mistica in Montechiari.

For me these sacred places of manifestation of the Divine Feminine
has such power and meaning and it is a reminder that Heaven and
Earth are not two separate places but that humanity has such inner
power which seldom manifests.

The Rosa Mistica is regarded as a cult by the Church which
has appropriated all the manifestations of Mary, the
embodiment of the Divine Feminine for our age and culture

As such it is not well advertised and very little information is
available other than their many attempts to become recognized
by the Roman Catholic Church.  It took us two days to find the shrine.
We stayed the night in the nearby Brescia - luckily! as our first
attempts were unsuccessful.  We had a GPS and a map and
directions but still could not find the place.  It was like
an elusive castle in a fairy tale!

The second day we had a 'plan' and we found it and we
were not disappointed.  It is in the middle of quiet fields
next to the river and there were hardly anyone else visiting.

The running water from the spring

The spring is open here, as opposed to the closed up spring
at Lourdes and I could drink directly from the water and
wash my hands and face.  There is also an open foot bath
and I could immerse my feet and legs in the freezing water.

The main statue in the chapel

The statue that gets taken out in the procession is locked up in a tiny
building and she is only visible through the glass doors.  Once a day
a healing procession and rosary takes place when she is taken out.

The walls are covered with plaques of those who received healings
at this shrine.  Outside are beautiful gardens and prayer spots.  It was
a beautiful crisp and clear day when we visited and we spent
about an hour sitting in the garden.  I then went back to collect water
and then only noticed the large statues of saints.  I stopped in front of
Padre Pio with whom I have had a close relationship all my life.

You can read more about this under the heading of  Sacred Journeys.

I lit a candle and had water from the sacred spring in my hand and
an intense fragrance of fresh roses spilled over me.  It took my breath away
it was so intense and despite having had this experience many times
I still looked around to see if anyone had arrived with bunches and bunches
of red roses!!! but of course there was no-one else!
Only the presence of Padre Pio and he always makes himself
known with the fragrance of roses.

I have smelled the fragrance of roses at other sacred sites such
as the shrine of Padre Pio in San Giovanni, the convent and gardens
of St Terese in Lisieux and at Lourdes.

Our divine mother embraces us with such compassion
and deep love and as mother to our own inner child
our healing lies in having acceptance, compassion and deep love
for our own inner wounded one and those of people that crosses
our path on our journey.

Her Presence is palpable and Real and these manifestations
show us how thin the veil is and that our heart and mind
has the power to cross it and to bask in the love of yourself.

with the fragrance of roses still lingering in my mind

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Women Who Dare #5

An incredible woman: Starting in October 1943, Marianne Cohen smuggled groups of youngsters to Switzerland until she was arrested in May 1944,  with a group of 28 children. The Jewish members of the underground planned to rescue her but she refused, lest her escape result in tragic consequences for the children.:

Marianne Cohen

An incredible woman

Starting in October 1943, Marianne Cohen smuggled groups of youngsters 
to Switzerland until she was arrested in May 1944, with a group of 28 children.
 The Jewish members of the underground planned to rescue her but she refused,
 lest her escape result in tragic consequences for the children.

In 1943, Marianne Cohn, an accountant born in Berlin, was sent by the Zionist movement MJS (Mouvement de la Jeunesse Sioniste) to replace
Mila Racine after the latter’s arrest. Cohn was already 
active in producing forged passports for the underground
 MJS, nicknamed “physical education.” 
She smuggled many groups of youngsters to Switzerland until she, too,
 was arrested on May 31, 1944, together with a group of twenty-eight
 children ranging in age from four to fifteen. All of them were sent to Annemasse.
 The Jewish members of the underground prepared 
a plan to rescue her but she refused, lest her escape 
result in tragic consequences for the children. 
The members of the underground sent a message to the Gestapo,
 threatening to kill them if the detainees were harmed. 
Though the children were rescued, Marianne Cohn 
was kidnapped by members of the special services 
from Lyon on July 3, 1944, severely tortured and
 murdered in Ville la Grand, near Annemasse.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Women who Dare #4

Alexandra David-Neel

 A Mystic in Tibet - Alexandra David-Neel

Mystic, anarchist  and traveller, Louise Eugenie Alexandrine Marie David was born in Paris on the 24th of October 1868. The atmosphere at home during her childhood was, by all accounts fairly austere and her parents strict. As a child her favourite books were the science fiction fantasies of Jules Verne, and, perhaps as a form of rebelliousness against her severe upbringing, she promised herself one day to outdo the heroes of these stories. One of the first indications of this sense of freedom and adventure was her running away at the age of five, just before the family left to move to Brussels. Only after a widespread search was she caught and marched to the police station by a gendarme, whom she scratched for his trouble.

By the age of fifteen Alexandra had already begun to study and had also obtained her first occult reading matter, an English journal produced by the Society of the Supreme Gnosis, sent to her by a woman called Elisabeth Morgan. 
That summer her family spent the holidays in Ostend, but Alexandra wanted something more interesting and walked into Holland and crossed over to England. In London she found Mrs. Morgan, who immediately persuaded her to return home.  In 1885, when she was seventeen, Alexandra again left home, this time travelling alone by train from Brussels to Switzerland. She then hiked alone over the Saint-Gotthard Pass through the Alps to the Italian lakes. Her distraught mother had to travel to the shores of Lake Maggiore and retrieve her by then penniless daughter.

London & the Theosophical Society

The following year she entered the Royal Conservatory of Brussels, and three years later won first prize for her soprano voice. In 1888 she went to study in London, and stayed cheaply and securely at the Society of Supreme Gnosis. Here, Elisabeth Morgan introduced her to Madame Blavatsky, the founder of the Theosophical Society, whose esoteric ideas had a significant influence on Alexandra. Alexandra returned to Brussels the next year to carry on her studies of music and voice. In her early twenties she studied at the Sorbonne and became a political radical, keeping a pistol and ammunition in her Paris room. In 1891, when she was twenty-three, disguised as a man, she joined a Paris cult led by Sri Ananda Saraswati, who used hashish to obtain visions.   

That same year an inheritance from her godmother enabled her to travel for more than a year through Ceylon and India. Fascinated by the mystery and magic of India and the eerie melodies of Tibetan music Alexandra knew she would return again one day. At Adyar, near Madras, she joined the Theosophists under Annie Besant, and studied Sanskrit with them. 

At the holy city of Benares, on the Ganges, she studied yoga with the great Swami Bhaskarananda (of Varanasi), who lived the whole year in a rose garden. She was fascinated by India and the Tibetan music she heard there, but was forced to return to Brussels when she ran out of money.
In 1899, Alexandra composed an anarchist treatise with a preface by the French geographer and anarchist Élisée Reclus (1820-1905). Publishers were, however, too terrified to publish the book, though her friend Jean Haustont printed copies himself and it was eventually translated into five languages. From 1894 to 1900 she lived as an aspiring actress/singer, but by 1900 her career was going nowhere and she accepted a job with the municipal opera in Tunis. Here she met Philip Neel, a thirty-nine-year-old bachelor who worked as a railway engineer. They married on 4th August, 1904, and took a villa at La Goulette next to the Mediterranean Sea. 

Sanskrit Studies in India

In 1911 she undertook her second voyage to India, and arrived at Pondicherry - all that remained of French India - where the police kept an eye on her due to her extremist tendencies. By 1912 Alexandra was living in Calcutta,  where on one occasion, annoyed by the behaviour of fakirs, she lay down on a bed of nails, and explained to a passing British tourist that she needed a rest and was lucky to find a bed. She also took part in Tantric rites, on one occasion the ritual of the so-called 'five forbidden substances': meat, fish, grain, wine, and sexual union.

She was progressing quickly with her Sanskrit studies, and was so noted a figure at holy Benares as to be honoured by the College of Sanskrit  there with an honorary doctorate of philosophy, a first for a European woman. 

When she arrived in the small Himalayan state of Sikkim, in 1912, she immediately felt at home, and increased her knowledge of Buddhism by visiting all the important monasteries there. She also met Prince Sidkeong of Sikkim. It was here that she became the first European woman to meet the Dalai Lama, at the time in exile. He told her to learn the Tibetan language. She made great progress in this and met the Gomchen (great hermit) of the monastery of Lachen. He was an impressive figure wearing a five-sided crown, a rosary necklace of 108 pieces of human skull, an apron carved of human bone, and a magic dagger. During the next two years Alexandra met with the hermit and learnt the art of telepathy from him. She also attempted 'tumo' breathing, the Tibetan art of generating body heat to keep warm in freezing conditions.

Two years later she met a young man called Aphur Yongden, and a friendship which was to last a lifetime developed between them; he eventually became her adopted son. They both moved to a cave hermitage in almost 4000 metres up in the mountains of northern Sikkim, close to the border with Tibet, which it was forbidden to cross into. The solitude in this desolate cave was exactly what a hermitage should include but would definitely not have any of the amenities of life in civilization. They would have to fend for themselves finding food and safety in a land that was not only dangerous but also forbidden. Their ultimate goal was to enter the famed holy city of Lhasa, but Tibet was rarely visited by Europeans at that time, let alone European women. Nevertheless Alexandra and Yongden did so twice, the result being expulsion from Sikkim in 1916.

Because of the war it was impossible to return to Europe, so they travelled to Japan. In a letter to her husband at the time Alexandra confessed her feelings for the Himalayas and Tibet -'Truthfully, I am "homesick" for a land that is not mine. I am haunted by the steppes, the solitude, the everlasting snow and the great blue sky "up there"! The difficult hours, the hunger, the cold, the wind slashing my face, leaving me with enormous, bloody, swollen lips.

At Kum Bum David Neel apparently managed to create a 'tulpa', a psychic phantom produced by intense concentration of thought and the repetition of relevant mystical rites over a period of months. She created a stout, phantom monk, whose form gradually became less ghost like and more life like. Before long the phantasm was accompanying her on her travels and behaving almost like a normal human being. However, he gradually began to change from a fat, jolly monk into a leaner more sinister character, and started to escape from her control. The tulpa was seen by others in her travelling party, proving it to have an objective existence outside of Alexandra's own mind, but, to avoid serious problems with her creation, Alexandra decided to 'dissolve' it. But this proved extremely difficult as the phantom clung desperately on to his life; she only succeeded in getting rid of him after six months of hard mental concentration.

The Strange Journey to Lhasa

Soon after this, in February 1921, Alexandra and Yongden left all their belongings and, disguised as beggars, set off on their journey to forbidden Tibet, and the holy city of Lhasa. The journey was to last an epic three years, and the details are recounted in Alexandra's book My Journey to Lhasa, first published in English in 1927. The route, as the crow flies, was 3,900 miles, but Alexandra's expedition was a different matter. She was twice intercepted and often had to change her plans.

At one stage, in early 1923, she went as far north as the Gobi Desert, from where she returned via Kanchow and Lanchow, south through China, and westwards into southern Tibet. Altogether her journey covered around 8,000 miles on horse, sedan chair and foot. Along the way bandits were a menace, as were tigers and leopards.

On the journey they met a strange phenomenon known as a 'lung-gom' runner. First seen as a distant moving black spot, this rapidly changed into a man running towards them at an incredible speed. Alexandra was warned not to stop the speeding lama or it would kill him. When she looked closely at him she could see that he his expression was extremely relaxed and staring fixedly at an imaginary far away object. His steps were as regular as a pendulum, though he didn't seem to run but progressed by great leaps like a bouncing rubber ball. He held a magic dagger in his right hand which he seemed to be using as a staff, though it was high off the ground. Apparently, such runners would carry on this amazing feat for days without stopping for food or water. Alexandra was told that years of meditation were required before undertaking this feat.

In February 1924, Alexandra and Yongden eventually arrived unobtrusively in the territory of Lhasa, where they remained for two months visiting the holy city and the surrounding monasteries. While at Lhasa Alexandra would go down to the river every morning to wash, something unusual enough to be noticed and reported to the governor of the city. Since the couple were in Tibet illegally this could have resulted in serious trouble, but luckily the governor did not act immediately on the tip and Alexandra and Yongden were long gone when the alarm was raised.

Alexandra returned home to France in 1925, and was a huge success in Paris. After separating from Philip she settled in Digne, Provence, in 1928, and built 'Samten-Dzong', which she called her 'fortress of meditation'. She published many books about her travels from here and also went on lecture tours throughout Europe.
In 1937, at the age of 70, Alexandra set off for China, accompanied by Yongden, via the Trans-Siberian railway. Unfortunately they arrived there during the violent war with Japan, when famine and disease were rife, though she wrote and studied despite the conditions and went on to India in 1946.

She returned to France and settled once again at Digne. In 1955 Yongden, 30 years younger than Alexandra, died whilst staying at Samten-Dzong. Alexandra worked constantly and had her passport renewed at the age of 100, much to the surprise of the officials at the passport office. She was awarded a gold medal by the Geographical society of Paris and in 1969 was made a Knight of the Legion of Honour. In addition, in Tibet, she was granted the rank of lama. She died on 8th September, 1969.

On the 28th February 1973, the ashes of Alexandra David-Neel, the first western woman to enter Tibet, along with those of her adopted son, Lama Yongden, were scattered over the waters of the Ganges at the holy city of Benares. On 15 October, 1982, and from May 21 to 26, 1986, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso) paid her tribute by coming to Digne to visit her house. Samten-Dzong now contains a museum and is the head office of The Alexandra David-Neel Cultural Centre. Visitors to the museum can see Alexandra’s arm chair, cane, a necklace of gold coins from Prince Sidkeong of Sikkim, and meditation beads from the Gomchen of Lachen.

David-Neel’s 30 or so books about Eastern religion, philosophy, and her exotic and eventful travels have been a major influence on a number of writers. These include English philosopher and writer Alan Wilson Watts (1915 ?  1973) and modern radical thinkers like beat writers Jack Kerouac (1922 ? 1969) and Allen Ginsberg (1926 ? 1997). In fact Ginsberg credited Alexandra David-Neel with converting him to Buddhism.

Sources and Further Reading

Foster, Barbara and Michael. The Secret Lives of Alexandra David-Neel. New York, The Overlook Press, 1998.David-Neel, Alexandra.  Magic and Mystery in Tibet. New York, Dover Publications Inc.,1971 (1932).Gordon, S.  The Paranormal. An Illustrated Encyclopedia. London, Headline, 1992, pp 162-3.Copyright 2003 / 2007 by Brian Haughton. All Rights Reserved.  

Be Blessed

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Women Who Dare #3

Ellen Swallow Richards

A plaque under the entrance arch of Vassar’s Blodgett Hall reads:
Ellen Swallow Richards
Class of 1870
Pioneer in the Study of Family Life
Founder of Home Economics
A tablet is placed on the building
Dedicated to the field of work
Called by her Euthenics

“Euthenics” now rings oddly in Blodgett Hall, home to the study of economics, anthropology, psychology, sociology, religion, and education. In fact most people who pass through Blodgett do not know what euthenics is, often confusing it with eugenics. Its creator, Ellen Swallow Richards, defined euthenics as the study of “the betterment of living conditions through conscious endeavor, for the purpose of securing efficient human beings.” Such high aspirations were characteristic of Richards, advocate of public health, founder of ecology, champion of women’s education in the sciences and the first professional female chemist in the nation.

Ellen Swallow Richards was born and raised on a farm in Dunstable, Massachusetts, in 1842. Having received no formal education until she was 16, she entered Vassar College at 26 as a third year student. While at Vassar, she was influenced by Charles Farrar, professor of chemistry, who insisted on the application of science on everyday household situations. Richards also came under the guidance of Maria Mitchell, professor of astronomy and activist for the advancement of women’s work in science. Mitchell saw in the diligent and bright Richards great potential for scientific innovation.

Graduating from Vassar in 1870, Richards went on to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to continue her work in chemistry. Her entrance to MIT was not easy; many institutions turned her down on the basis of her sex, and MIT declined all women applicants except for Richards, accepting her as a special student to ascertain women’s ability in the sciences. Richards was successful at MIT, becoming the nation’s preeminent water scientist even before her graduation. Yet, writing to a friend in 1872, she was aware of her precarious position in the patriarchal field of science and education:

I hope that I am winning a way which others will keep open. Perhaps the fact that I am not a radical, and that I do not scorn womanly duties, but deem it a privilege to clean up and supervise the room and sew things, etc., is winning me stronger allies than anything else… I am useful in a general way, and they can’t say study spoils me for anything else.

Richards received her Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry from MIT in 1873. Vassar conferred on Richards a Masters in Arts upon her graduation from MIT, and her admiring MIT laboratory-mates bestowed upon her a third “degree,” in the form of an A.O.M: Artium Omnium Magistra. ("Mistress of All the Arts") The head of the chemistry laboratory, Professor Nichols, offered Richards a position as a lab assistant after her graduation, which she accepted. Richards accepted a wedding proposal from Robert Hallowell Richards, a professor of mining at MIT, in this laboratory. They married in 1875 and settled in a house in the Boston suburb of Jamaica Plains, which became a laboratory for their theories in home efficiency. In 1876, MIT opened a new laboratory for women, of which Richards became an instructor, and then head instructor in 1884. She held this position at the laboratory, which she dedicated to the study of “sanitary chemistry”, until her death in 1911.

A friend said of Richards: “…she was a woman of a few words, but she had a transfiguring touch; and her rare intellectual quality—her power of dropping a few words and transporting you to a larger world—was supplemented by a personality which commanded affection and allegiance in a remarkable degree.” The lab became a site for important scientific advancements, such as the first scientific study of water pollution and the establishment of “normal chlorine” for water quality. Richard’s work in water, air, and minerals led to the development of a study she christened Oekology, which later came to be called ecology.

Ellen Swallow Richards's lab at MIT

Richards's greatest achievement was her founding of the home economics movement, where she was able to synthesize many of her scientific and moral interests. Lucy M. Salmon, professor of history at Vassar—herself a renowned innovator—observed: “Mrs. Richards was among the very first to realize that the home affords an opportunity for scientific investigation and she became our first great pioneer home missionary… She discovered rich veins of interest where others had seen only prosaic humdrum duties, menial service, and uninspired, uninspiring household direction.” Bringing science into the home, Richards hoped to “attain the best physical, mental, and moral development” for the family, which she believed was the basic unit of civilization. To spread the cause of home economics, Richards organized the Lake Placid Conference in Home Economics, which met yearly from 1899 to 1908. The Home Economics Association was created in 1908, with Richards as its first president.

As active outside her laboratory as she was in it, Richards served as a chemist at the Manufacturer’s Mutual Fire Insurance Company, published 17 books on home economics and sanitation—including the first health-food cookbook published in the nation—and involved herself in many public health issues, bringing reformed hygiene policies to Boston schools, organizing the first school lunch programs, and introducing inexpensive and nutritional cooking to Boston’s immigrant communities through "The New England Kitchen." Richards also prepared three exhibitions on home economics for world fairs.

Elected an Alumna Trustee at Vassar in 1894, Richards effectively advised the trustees on the issue of sewage disposal. Following her guidance, the college decided to construct an irrigation plant instead of building a costly sewage canal from the college to the Hudson River. As trustee, Richards also helped build foundations for the study of home economics and the sciences at Vassar. In 1916, the Alumnae of Vassar established a memorial fund in her honor to secure lecturers of distinction on euthenics. In 1924, with the combined efforts of one of Richards’s former students, Vassar trustee Minnie Cumnock Blodgett, chemist Annie L. McLeod, and Vassar President Henry Noble McCracken, the college’s educational experiment with euthenics began. Members of the department included advisors of chemistry, physiology, psychology, personnel research, and mental hygiene. Although euthenics never became popular as a curricular option with students and faculty, the Summer Institute of Euthenics, set up at the same time, was quite successful, becoming the center for studies in families, child psychology, child nutrition, and methods of education. Benjamin Spock and Margaret Mead were part of its faculty. Environmental aspects of the Institute (which Richards had stressed in the study of euthenics) were gradually discarded, and the Institute itself ceased operation in the 1950’s.

Richards was a lifelong advocate of women’s education and professional opportunities. She gave a lecture at Vassar in 1889 entitled “The Education and Occupations of the Twentieth Century Woman.” In 1911, the year she died, she addressed her fellow alumnae: “We have won our standing, an acknowledged place. Now that we have influence how shall we use it? Woman’s outlook will be different ten years from now. Is she still to be behind in the race? Or from her new standpoint shall she lead? The question is not woman, but ability and women.”

extracted from Vassar Encyclopedia at

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