Geology Professor and Science Historian Co-Author Article Exploring Eunice Foote’s Climate Experiments From 1856
Most would agree that the main goal of science is to work toward better understanding by sorting out competing hypotheses to find the underlying theories. So, isn’t it ironic that the history of science is sometimes quite messy, for a variety of reasons? When you add decades of systemic oppression of women scientists to the mix, getting at the truth can become much harder.
John Tyndall, a prominent 19th-century Irish physicist, is generally credited with first discovering the Earth's natural greenhouse effect by measuring the absorption of heat by carbon dioxide and water vapor in 1859. This discovery is vital to the understanding of climate change, weather and meteorology. However, three years earlier in 1856, an American woman, Eunice Foote (1819-1888), made a similar discovery, which was presented by Professor Joseph Henry, on her behalf, at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and then published as a paper in the American Journal of Science and Arts in 1856, titled “Circumstances Affecting the Heat of the Sun’s Rays."
Who Was Eunice Foote?
Not a lot is known about Foote as an amateur scientist, or “natural philosopher” as the term “scientist” wasn’t yet common in the 1850s. She has just two scientific publications to her name that historians have found thus far.
In 2010, a report on Eunice Foote’s 1856 research was found by Raymond Sorenson, a retired petroleum geologist. He realized that Foote was the first to make the connection between carbon dioxide and climate change and that her work had gone mostly unrecognized by the prominent scientists of the 1850s, especially in technologically advanced European scientific institutions, such as the Royal Institution in London where Tyndall worked.
Foote was educated at the Troy Female Seminary (renamed the Emma Willard School), in Troy, New York, where she was taught scientific theory, foundational chemistry and biology and later went on to become a successful inventor and women’s rights activist. She was a member of the editorial committee for the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, the first women’s rights convention, and was one of the signatories of the Declaration of Sentiments along with her neighbor and friend Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a suffragist leader. Remarkably, just 16 papers in the field of physics were published by American women in the 19th century; only two of which were published before 1889 and both were written by Foote, including the first by a woman to be published in the Proceedings of the AAAS.
Their article also explores Foote’s work in the context of what geologists thought caused climate change in the 1850s based on contemporary writing. At the time, geologists thought that the earth was warmer in the deep past for a variety of competing reasons. They were also working to understand the distribution of vast, apparently tropical coal deposits at high latitudes, which were already driving the start of the Industrial Revolution. Some geologists thought high latitude coal had to do with shifting continental positions with time. Others ascribed the warmth to higher concentrations of water vapor in the past and residual heat from Earth’s formation. Some thought the thick coal bed forests and swamps were formed due to higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere thus providing the ‘plant food.’ But, until Foote, no one thought that carbon dioxide could be linked to warming, let alone set out to test that experimentally.
“Our assessment of her results indicate that Eunice Foote did measure warming effects related to carbon dioxide and water vapor that demonstrate those gases, which we now know are greenhouse gases, did warm air disproportionately relative to the non-greenhouse gases that she studied,” Ortiz said. “This was her original contribution to climate science and the first known published study to document not only the warming effect of carbon dioxide, but its potential impact on climate, a remarkable achievement for 1856.”
Ortiz met Jackson on Twitter while responding to a tweet about Foote by a mutual colleague and prominent climate scientist, Sarah Myhre, Ph.D., founder and executive director of the Rowan Institute. Political Science Professor Katherine Hayhoe, Ph.D., of Texas Tech University, another leading climate scientist, has also been responsible for helping to spread the word about Foote’s once forgotten role in climate science.
Jackson is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Royal Institution and Research Associate in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at University College London. He previously served as the chief executive of the British Science Association and head of the Science Museum of London and worked as a bioscientist, teacher and advisor to ICI, a chemical company. He is a biographer of Tyndall and, in 2019, wrote a separate paper comparing Foote and Tyndall’s work from a more qualitative perspective. Based on his research, Jackson concluded that it is unlikely that Tyndall was either aware of, or had read, Foote’s paper.
Jackson wrote, “This episode raises particular questions about, and throws light on, simultaneous discovery, the nature of networks between American and European physicists in the 1850s, the significance of gender and amateur status, and the reputation of American physics and physicists in Europe.”
“I have always wanted to understand more about the motivation and reasoning for her (Foote’s) work, and I think we have succeeded in uncovering that in our paper,” Jackson said.
Ortiz first learned about Foote a few years ago and thought her story was “remarkable” and said he was “floored by the elegance of her experiments.” She used paired glass vessels to simultaneously measure the differential warming of various gases at different concentrations when exposed to the sun’s rays or shaded.
“Her work demonstrates how long climate scientists have known that carbon dioxide – or carbonic acid vapor as it was known in her day – could cause the planet to warm as its concentration increased in the atmosphere,” Ortiz said. “That was Foote's contribution. She took what was known from geology, infused it with physical experimentation, and helped to create the modern field of climate science, but without receiving credit.”
As a scientist who works across disciplinary boundaries, that approach resonated with Ortiz.
“She was ahead of her time in my opinion,” Ortiz said. “While some did immediately appreciate her work, others were perplexed by it. How I would have loved to read more papers by her and see where she could have gone if she remained in science. She lived an influential life despite that, taking an active role in the fight for women's rights and with success as an inventor. I'm interested to dig into this early literature to try to learn more about the contributions of other women scientists whose work has been forgotten.”
Ortiz said women in science still face many of the same barriers today. Their voices are often overlooked. They are paid less, expected to conduct more service and passed over for positions of leadership.
“We need to provide equal access, pay and funding for women doing the same work as men in science,” Ortiz said. “We need to value cooperation, rather than competition, and build systems of advancement and policies that don't disadvantage women. Science advances best when explored from diverse perspectives.”
To learn more about Ortiz’s research, visit www.personal.kent.edu/~jortiz.
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