Last updated on January 28, 2021
Eunice Foote was born in NY state in 1819. She had gone to university at the Troy Female Seminary (N/K/A Emma Willard School), where she was encouraged to attend a nearby college to study science. It was there where she learned her scientific skills for her free-thinking experiments.
In fact, she was not only a scientist, but she was also a dear friend of the well-known suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She was so active in the movement that she was a signatory of the Declaration of Sentiments drafted by women at the 1848 convention held in Seneca Falls for women’s rights.
Her heroism was not limited to the women’s movement of her time. She was the first person to describe the greenhouse gas effect in climate science over 150 years ago. Greenhouse gases, as you know, help heat the planet, and they are the reason why civilization was able to survive and thrive on earth for thousands of years.
But humanity has increased greenhouse gases beyond safe limits, threatening civilization’s collapse and a likely (if current emission trends are not reversed) extinction event.
She described how these gases would change the globe’s temperature. Little did she know how a population explosion and relentless carbon emissions would doom humankind to unimaginable horrors. She was unable to present her findings as they were prohibited by the 1856 American Association for the Advancement of Science. Three years later, a male scientist presented her findings and has since been known as the father of climate science.
Eunice Foote had conducted a series of independent science experiments to test whether the sun’s rays had any effect on various gases. She tested her theory using simple tools: an air pump, two glass cylinders, and four thermometers.
Foote filled each of the glass cylinders with two thermometers. Then, she used the air pump and removed the air from one cylinder, and condensed it in the other. After adding a bit of moisture, she then placed the cylinders under the sun.
After testing a variety of gases, including carbon dioxide — which was in the 19th century referred to as “carbonic acid” — Foote theorized that the amount of these gasses in the atmosphere would have an effect on the atmosphere’s temperature.
This was the first time that the greenhouse gas effect had ever been described.
Meanwhile, Foote was a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which was among the few institutions that allowed amateurs and women to become members.
So in August 1856, Eunice Foote presented her paper titled Circumstances Affecting the Heat of Sun’s Rays at the annual conference of the AAAS. Foote’s presence there was the first recorded account of her scientific endeavors.
But Foote did not get to present or read her paper herself. Instead, Joseph Henry of the Smithsonian Institution editorialized Foote’s study, saying that “science was of no country and of no sex. The sphere of woman embraces not only the beautiful and the useful but the true.”
Whether this was meant to be a compliment to Foote’s endeavors or a way of protecting her from sexist criticism is anyone’s guess, but either way, Foote’s work wasn’t read in full or with the seriousness it deserved.
Foote’s study was omitted from the society’s annual Proceedings where all the works that were presented at their annual meetings were published.
Thus, in 1859, Irish scientist John Tyndall published his own paper and has since been widely credited as the father of modern climate science.
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