Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Friday, July 17, 2020

Eunice Newton Foote, Scientist and Inventor

Eunice Newton Foote, scientist and inventor (born 17 July 1819)

Writing about Eunice Newton Foote as part of the New York Times "Overlooked No More" series, John Schwartz notes that her "ingenious experiment more than 150 years ago yielded a remarkable discovery that could have helped shape modern climate science had she not been overshadowed."
Eunice Foote's 1856 paper , published in
the American Journal of Science and the Arts

Could have, Schwartz says, because "the scientific paper she published that might have added her name to the pantheon of early climate scientists was quickly forgotten, and she faded into obscurity. There isn’t even a known photograph of her today."

Now, however, Eunice Newton Foote's name and her scientific observations have begun to gain recognition, as the "overlooked no more" obituary demonstrates. Better late than never?

Born in Goshen, Connecticut, Eunice Newton was the daughter of the wonderfully named "Isaac Newton." (He was actually "Isaac Newton Jr.," the son of a farmer named Isaac Newton, also from Goshen). Her mother's given name was Thirza (her surname is unknown). 

Together Isaac and Thirza Newton had eleven children and, at some point, Newton relocated from Goshen to East Bloomfield, New York. The family's fortunes rose and fell--at one point Isaac Newton seems to have become wealthy (due to his "large and bold" speculation), but at the time of his death, he "was much embarrassed with debt."

While nothing is known of Eunice Newton's childhood, records indicate that she was enrolled at the Troy Female Seminary from 1836 to 1838. While there, she seems to have attended science lectures at Rensellaer School, co-founded by Amos Eaton, a man dedicated to the belief that women should be educated in the sciences.

In 1841, Eunice Newton married Elisha Foote. The couple had two daughters, Mary, born in 1842, and Augusta, in 1844. 

Elisha Foote, a lawyer and inventor, had been trained in the law by Daniel Cady, the father of the suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Elisha Foote practiced law and then became a judge in Seneca Falls, New York. It should be no surprise, then, that both Elisha and Eunice Newton Foote attended the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, signing the "Declaration of Sentiments." Along with Stanton, Eunice Foote prepared the proceedings of the convention for publication.

Signatories of the "Declaration of Sentiments,"
Seneca Falls Convention;
Eunice Newton Foote's name is fifth on the list
By 1856, Eunice Newton Foote had written a scientific paper that was accepted for presentation at the Eighth Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Through a series of experiments, she had demonstrated the effect of the sun on various gases, in the process discovering that carbon dioxide became hottest. She then theorized about the effect of these gases on the earth's atmosphere, concluding that “An atmosphere of that gas would give to our earth a high temperature.”

Though her paper had been accepted for presentation at the association's meeting, as a woman Foote was not able to present it herself. Instead her paper was read by Joseph Henry, director of the Smithsonian Institution.

About the "gender disparities" that were apparent in this arrangement, Leila McNeill writes:

At the meeting, Henry appended Foote’s paper with his own added preface: “Science was of no country and of no sex. The sphere of woman embraces not only the beautiful and the useful, but the true.” The introduction, intended to praise Foote, more than anything highlights her difference as a woman in a sea of men, indicating that her presence among them was indeed unusual and needed justification. Even Scientific American’s praise of Foote’s paper was included in a column two pages after the AAAS meeting report. Though both Henry and Scientific American seemed to see Foote as an equal in scientific endeavors, she was still kept separate from the fold.

In 1857, Foote published a second scientific paper, "On a New Source of Electrical Excitation," in the Proceedings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science

In addition to her scientific experimentation, Foote received a patent for a rubber filling to improve the soles of boots and shoes (intended to "prevent the squeaking of boots and shoes"), and she developed a machine to improve paper making. 

According to a genealogical study of the Newton, Eunice Newton Foote was also a portrait and landscape painter

She died on 30 September 1888, just sixty-nine years old. 

For understanding Eunice Newton Foote's scientific achievement (and the reasons why her achievements were "lost"), I recommend Leila McNeill's Smithsonian essay, quoted above (click here) and John Perlin's "Foote-Note" on "the hidden history" of climate science (click here).

There is a short film, Eunice, available by clicking here. Also online is a presentation from the "Science Knows No Gender: In Search of Eunice Foote" symposium (UC Santa Barbara, 2018), particularly interesting for information about Foote's education, about Adam Eaton, and about the Troy Female Seminary (click here).

Update, 17 November 2021: As part of its "Retropolis" series, the Washington Post has just published another piece on the accomplishments--and disappearing--of Eunice Foote. Click here to read Gillian Brockell's "Did the 'father of climate science' steal his discovery from Eunice Newton Foote?" (The "Retropolis" series focuses on "the past, rediscovered.")

Update, 22 September 2022: This week's episode on the BBC's The Forum, hosted by the amazing Bridget Kendall, is "A Forgotten Founder of Climate Science: Eunice Newton Foote." To listen, click here.