She discovered the greenhouse effect more than 160 years ago, but was ignored because she was a woman

She performed all the necessary experiments. With 4 thermometers, 2 glass cylinders, and a vacuum pump, she compared the way in which the presence of different gases, such as water vapor and carbon dioxide, increases the temperature after being exposed to solar radiation. It was 1856 three years before Irish physicist John Tyndall published his iconic research detailing how different gases have the ability to intercept the heat that is radiated in the infrared spectrum by the Sun or the Earth and Eunice Newton Foote had just taken the first steps to understand how the now well-known “greenhouse effect” works.

Eunice Newton Foote (1819-1888) was an American scientist and climatologist. She was also a member and one of the organizers of the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 (the first women’s rights convention in the United States). However, her name doesn’t appear in those stories that seek to explain the path followed by the science of climate change. Why?

 Recreation of Newton Foote’s experiment, as shown in 2018’s short film “Eunice”. Image taken from The New York Times

Like so many other stories of women in science, despite being a key player in the understanding of a scientific concept, Newton Foote’s voice was not considered qualified enough to become part of the canon of climate scientists, something that continues to happen despite being vindicated since 2011.

Originally from the state of Connecticut, Eunice Newton attended an all-women’s school where interest in scientific knowledge was encouraged. Although not much more is known about her educational background, it is clear that the science bug bit Newton Foote, who once married to her husband Elisha Foote, set about performing the experiments described at the beginning of this story.

The Foote-Newton couple presented their work at the Eighth Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 1856. By that time, progress had already been made in terms of the inclusion of white women in this association the first three had been accepted since 1850: astronomer Maria Mitchell, entomologist Margaretta Morris, and educator Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps. However, its structure still reflected the hierarchies of that time. The Civil War had not even happened, so the inclusion of Black people was not on the horizon for the AAAS; while those white women who managed to enter the association were only considered members, while men could obtain more distinguished titles such as “Professional Member” or “Fellow”.

Portraits of Maria Mitchell and Margaretta Morris, respectively. Public domain.

This disparity was reflected on the opportunities Elisha Foote and Eunice Newton Foote received during the meeting: while Elisha was able to publish the results of his gas experiments and read them to an audience of his peers, Eunice had to be content with having her major discovery, titled “Circumstances Affecting the Heat of Sun’s Rays,” reported by Professor Joseph Henry of the Smithsonian Institution. Additionally, due to AAAS’s biased policies on what results could be published in the meeting proceedings, Newton Foote’s text was left out of the official publications, compared to the other papers presented that year. That doesn’t mean her name wasn’t associated with her experiments: her text saw the light of day by other means, like a publication in the 1856 American Magazine of Science and Art and the 1860 Yearbook of Scientific Discoveries. However, the trace dwindles very quickly as Tyndall’s work became more known among climatologists. Eunice Newton Foote’s name seemed destined to oblivion. 

155 years later, in the year of 2011, Raymond P. Sorensen, described eclectically as a historian, independent researcher, editor of the Journal of Petroleum Industry History, collector of scientific manuals, and “mineral owner“, read the 1860’s Yearbook of Scientific Discoveries. He immediately published an article describing the significance of Newton Foote’s work.

The research paper written by Eunice Newton Foote and read by Joseph Henry at the 8th AAAS Meeting in 1856. Version from the American Journal of Science and Art.

Since then, Newton Foote’s research has been recognized in countless articles drawing attention to this missing piece of the puzzle in the history of climate science. But still, there are those who continue to belittle her role in this story, arguing that, while her conclusions were correct, she failed to distinguish between visible radiation and radiation in the form of heat interacting with greenhouse gases. But presenting this failure as a counterweight to her contributions only reflects the unequal reception to the work of women in science. Throughout history, there are examples where a great discovery didn’t explain or consider all the elements necessary for a scientific theory as we know it today.

Take Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection: at the time, Darwin did not present a mechanism that explained heredity, and yet he’s still remembered for the importance of what he could explain. Considering that science is a constant work in progress, the role played by Newton Foote should not be seen in terms of what she did right or wrong based on what we know now, but rather we should recognize her as a precursor of the great knowledge that today allows us to understand the impacts that our activities generate on our planet

Originally published in Spanish on Planeteando

Cover image: Signatures to the “Declaration of Sentiments”, written during the first Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, including Eunice Newton Foote’s.