How the Female Scientist Who Discovered the Greenhouse Gas Effect Was Forgotten by History

In the ear­ly 19th cen­tu­ry, Aristotle’s Mete­o­ro­log­i­ca still guid­ed sci­en­tif­ic ideas about the cli­mate. The mod­el “sprang from the ancient Greek con­cept of kli­ma,” as Ian Bea­cock writes at The Atlantic, a sta­t­ic scheme that “divid­ed the hemi­spheres into three fixed cli­mat­ic bands: polar cold, equa­to­r­i­al heat, and a zone of mod­er­a­tion in the mid­dle.” It wasn’t until the 1850s that the study of cli­mate devel­oped into what his­to­ri­an Deb­o­rah Cohen describes as “dynam­ic cli­ma­tol­ogy.”

Indeed, 120 years before Exxon Mobile learned about—and then seem­ing­ly cov­ered up—glob­al warm­ing, pio­neer­ing researchers dis­cov­ered the green­house gas effect, the ten­den­cy for a closed envi­ron­ment like our atmos­phere to heat up when car­bon diox­ide lev­els rise. The first per­son on record to link CO2 and glob­al warm­ing, ama­teur sci­en­tist Eunice New­ton Foote, pre­sent­ed her research to the Eight Annu­al Meet­ing of the Amer­i­can Asso­ci­a­tion for the Advance­ment of Sci­ence in 1856.

Foote’s paper, “Cir­cum­stances affect­ing the heat of the sun’s rays,” was reviewed the fol­low­ing month in the pages of Sci­en­tif­ic Amer­i­can, in a col­umn that approved of her “prac­ti­cal exper­i­ments” and not­ed, “this we are hap­py to say has been done by a lady.” She used an air pump, glass cylin­ders, and ther­mome­ters to com­pare the effects of sun­light on “car­bon­ic acid gas” (or car­bon diox­ide) and “com­mon air.” From her rudi­men­ta­ry but effec­tive demon­stra­tions, she con­clud­ed:

An atmos­phere of that gas [CO2] would give to our earth a high tem­per­a­ture; and if as some sup­pose, at one peri­od of its his­to­ry the air had mixed with it a larg­er pro­por­tion than at present, an increased temperature…must have nec­es­sar­i­ly result­ed.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, her achieve­ment would dis­ap­pear three years lat­er when Irish physi­cist John Tyn­dall, who like­ly knew noth­ing of Foote, made the same dis­cov­ery. With his supe­ri­or resources and priv­i­leges, Tyn­dall was able to take his research fur­ther. “In ret­ro­spect,” one cli­mate sci­ence data­base writes, Tyn­dall has emerged as the founder of cli­mate sci­ence, though the view “hides a com­plex, and in many ways more inter­est­ing sto­ry.”

Nei­ther Tyn­dall nor Foote wrote about the effect of human activ­i­ty on the con­tem­po­rary cli­mate. It would take until the 1890s for Swedish sci­en­tist Svante Arrhe­nius to pre­dict human-caused warm­ing from indus­tri­al CO2 emis­sions. But sub­se­quent devel­op­ments depend­ed upon their insights. Foote, whose was born 200 years ago this past July, was mar­gin­al­ized almost from the start. “Entire­ly because she was a woman,” the Pub­lic Domain Review points out, “Foote was barred from read­ing the paper describ­ing her find­ings.”

Fur­ther­more, Foote “was passed over for pub­li­ca­tion in the Association’s annu­al Pro­ceed­ings.” Her paper was pub­lished in The Amer­i­can Jour­nal of Sci­ence, but was most­ly remarked upon, as in the Sci­en­tif­ic Amer­i­can review, for the mar­vel of such home­spun inge­nu­ity from “a lady.” The review, titled “Sci­en­tif­ic Ladies—Experiments with Con­densed Gas,” opened with the sen­tence “Some have not only enter­tained, but expressed the mean idea, that women do not pos­sess the strength of mind nec­es­sary for sci­en­tif­ic inves­ti­ga­tion.”

The praise of Foote cred­its her as a paragon of her gen­der, while fail­ing to con­vey the uni­ver­sal impor­tance of her dis­cov­ery. At the AAAS con­fer­ence, the Smithsonian’s Joseph Hen­ry praised Foote by declar­ing that sci­ence was “of no coun­try and of no sex,” a state­ment that has proven time and again to be untrue in prac­tice. The con­de­scen­sion and dis­crim­i­na­tion Foote endured points to the mul­ti­ple ways in which she was exclud­ed as a woman—not only from the sci­en­tif­ic estab­lish­ment but from the edu­ca­tion­al insti­tu­tions and fund­ing sources that sup­port­ed it.

Her dis­ap­pear­ance, until recent­ly, from the his­to­ry of sci­ence “plays into the Matil­da Effect,” Leila McNeill argues at Smith­son­ian, “the trend of men get­ting cred­it for female scientist’s achieve­ments.” In this case, there’s no rea­son not to cred­it both sci­en­tists, who made orig­i­nal dis­cov­er­ies inde­pen­dent­ly. But Foote got there first. Had she been giv­en the cred­it she was due at the time—and the insti­tu­tion­al sup­port to match—there’s no telling how far her work would have tak­en her.

Just as Foote’s dis­cov­ery places her firm­ly with­in cli­mate sci­ence his­to­ry, ret­ro­spec­tive­ly, her “place in the sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty, or lack therof,” writes Ama­ra Hud­dle­ston at, “weaves into the broad­er sto­ry of women’s rights.” Foote attend­ed the first Women’s Rights Con­ven­tion in Seneca Falls, NY in 1848, and her name is fifth down on the list of sig­na­to­ries to the “Dec­la­ra­tion of Sen­ti­ments,” a doc­u­ment demand­ing full equal­i­ty in social sta­tus, legal rights, and edu­ca­tion­al, eco­nom­ic, and, Foote would have added, sci­en­tif­ic oppor­tu­ni­ties.

Learn much more about Foote and her fas­ci­nat­ing fam­i­ly from her descen­dent, marine biol­o­gist Liz Foote.

via Pub­lic Domain Review

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Women Sci­en­tists Launch a Data­base Fea­tur­ing the Work of 9,000 Women Work­ing in the Sci­ences

“The Matil­da Effect”: How Pio­neer­ing Women Sci­en­tists Have Been Denied Recog­ni­tion and Writ­ten Out of Sci­ence His­to­ry

Marie Curie Became the First Woman to Win a Nobel Prize, the First Per­son to Win Twice, and the Only Per­son in His­to­ry to Win in Two Dif­fer­ent Sci­ences

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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