Eunice Foote: The Science Behind Climate Change Has A Woman’s Name

In recent years, a large number of climate concern, motivated in large part by the increasingly frequent extreme climatic phenomena, as well as by the notable increase in temperature.

What is even more worrying is that scientific data has pointed to humans as the cause behind all these phenomena that threaten us. This fact, as well as the silent way in which it endangers our lives, is what has mobilized people from many different countries so intensely as shown, for example, by the international movement Fridays for Future. Many movements similar to this began a few decades ago, when the ozone hole and the greenhouse effect were widely publicized by the media.

However, very few people know that one of the main ingredients of this climate change, the greenhouse effect, was actually discovered by a woman: Eunice Foote.

The Troy female seminary (Rensselaer County. NY), where Eunice Foote learned chemistry and biology.
Library of Congress

The first steps of a scientist amateur

Eunice Foote was born in 1819 in Goshen (Connecticut, United States) into a humble family; his father was a simple farmer. Despite not having higher education, her parents wanted their daughter to also receive scientific training and sent her to an institute, the Troy Female Seminary. There he was able to learn chemistry and biology, mainly with an experimental approach, for two years.

This was undoubtedly the germ of a facet of her character that would mark her entire life: she never lost her curiosity and continued to be what today we would call a scientist amateur.

In addition, Eunice Foote had a strong character and well-defined convictions: she believed that women also had the right to be as free as men and to receive a higher education. This is what prompted her, along with her husband Elisha Foote, statistician and judge, to sign in 1848 in New York one of the first conventions for women’s rights to be held in the world: that of Seneca Falls. Just two years later, he made the biggest (known) discovery of his career: the greenhouse effect.

A home experiment

Thus, in 1850 in a laboratory in his own home, he performed the following experiment. He introduced different gases (common air, hydrogen and CO₂) into closed containers. Inside these containers there was also a thermometer to be able to measure the temperature inside.

He then exposed these gases to sunlight and observed changes in temperature. Thus, he discovered that not all gases are heated in the same way. The CO₂ was the one that seemed to absorb the most heat.

He also observed that humidity is another crucial factor for heating (the more humid, the more heat is absorbed). It is known that there is a direct relationship between temperature and the microscopic movement of particles: the higher the temperature of a gas, the more its particles move. Therefore, air molecules are able to absorb incoming heat transforming it into molecular motion.

Eunice’s was a fairly simple experiment that can easily be done at home. In fact, Figure 1, corresponding to a similar experiment carried out by the authors of this article during the European Researchers’ Night of this year, shows how the temperature measured in containers with CO₂ inside them increases more than in those that only have air.

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Experimental setup (A) and heating results (B).
Author provided

Impact of the discovery

Despite its simplicity, the results of his experiment have profound consequences. Eunice quickly realized the implications of her results, as she knew from her scientific training that the composition of the atmosphere has changed over time. Therefore, the temperature of the atmosphere must have changed as well. Furthermore, if the composition of the CO₂ in the atmosphere changed in the future, the climate would also change.

What the researcher did not know is that, in reality, above her head (or below her feet), there was a vivid example of her discovery: Venus.

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Image of clouds in the atmosphere of Venus.

Venus is not the closest planet to the Sun in our solar system, but it is nevertheless the one with the highest atmospheric temperature. This is due to the dense atmosphere, with terrifying colossal clouds of CO₂ and even sulfuric acid.

Despite its daunting image today, it is believed that in the past Venus was quite similar to our peaceful planet: a habitable place. Something terrible happened in its past history that made it turn into this hell that it is today: Venus is nothing more than an alarm signal in our skies that tells us how things can be if we are not responsible enough for our actions.

A woman in a man’s world

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Eunice Newton Foote’s article, Circumstances that affect the heat of the sun’s rays, published by the American Journal of Science.

Despite this enormous discovery, Eunice Foote was not a professional scientist and, worse, was a woman in a century when women were not taken seriously. For this reason, a colleague of his, Joseph Henry, of the Smithsonian Institution, was the one who presented his research – published under the title Circumstances that affect the heat of the sun’s rays– at the conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1856.

Henry was very impressed by his study, which he considered to be of higher quality than the others presented at the conference, and decided to add a preface to the research: “Science is not from any country or gender. The sphere of women encompasses not only the beautiful and the useful, but also the true ”. However, perhaps because it was a female work after all, it was not even published in the conference summary.

As if that were not enough, a year later, John Tyndall, who was a professional scientist and therefore had many more means to do these experiments, posted a job in which he reached the same conclusions as Eunice.

It is not yet clear if she was aware of Eunice’s investigations, it is very possible that she was not, but what is known for sure is that she did not cite her. The American’s work then fell into oblivion and John Tyndall went down in history as the first person to discover the greenhouse effect.

Yet history itself held a better place for Eunice Foote than the memory drawer. In 2010 Eunice’s work was recovered and with it a fact was revealed: Eunice, a woman, had been the first person to discover it.

The name of Eunice Foote in the 21st century

More than 10 years have passed since that rediscovery and hardly anyone knows yet that the greenhouse effect was discovered by a woman. Hardly anyone knows Eunice Foote. One wonders if this would be different if it had been a man. Although we cannot know for sure, there have been more than enough cases in the history of science not to suspect at least the existence of some gender discrimination in Eunice’s history as well.

Some of the most embarrassing examples in our scientific community are the Nobel Prize exclusion of Rosalind Franklin, the first person to discover the double helix structure of DNA, or of Jocelyn Bell, the discoverer of those lighthouses of the cosmic oceans that are the pulsars. With greater media impact and more current, many voices have also been raised in recent months to point out and protest because this year no woman has won a scientific Nobel Prize either.

Despite the fame of these awards, really this clear inequality among the recipients of the same is only the tip of an iceberg of exclusion and discrimination that persists in our community.

Perhaps in the shadows she was forced to live under, as has happened with many other women we still don’t know anything about, Eunice was showing us the way not only to be better as a species, being more aware of the consequences of our actions, but also to be better human beings in the present.

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Eunice Foote: The Science Behind Climate Change Has A Woman’s Name