It’s funny how history remembers people—whom we celebrate, whom we write out.
The big name in climate science is Irish physicist John Tyndall, who’s largely credited with discovering in 1859 the greenhouse effect: the process of atmospheric gases trapping heat down on Earth. Tyndall has had world-renowned climate institutes and centers named after him, as reported by The Washington Post. Hell, he’s even had some mountains and glaciers named after him.
But Tyndall was not the first scientist to discover the way greenhouses gases like carbon dioxide make our planet warmer. In fact, a woman named Eunice Foote published her findings on this phenomenon three years earlier, but history has largely forgotten her. There are no natural or institutional bodies named after her. Even many climate scientists I spoke to for this story didn’t know about her until I reached out. And that’s not their fault. Foote’s erasure is a product of a patriarchal society that often diminishes a woman’s accomplishments and sometimes omits them altogether.
Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re celebrating the first climate scientist—and the women who’ve followed in her footsteps. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate director of Atmos. The beauty of Foote’s story is that she wasn’t only a scientist. Like many women in climate science today, she was also a mother, a wife, and a feminist. She didn’t let the sexism of her time silence her. No, she stood up for what she believed. And I can’t help but wonder if her advocacy further pushed her into the shadows in a world run by men who refuse to give up their power.
Cecilia Conde has been studying the greenhouse effect since 1988. She’s a researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s Institute of Atmospheric Sciences and Climate Change. And yet, she only learned the story of Eunice Foote two months ago.
“It was a surprise for me,” Conde said. “It was a great discovery to learn about Eunice.”
As Conde came to learn, Foote wasn’t a scientist with access to a fancy lab. She conducted her experiment to discover the warming force of carbon dioxide out of her own home in upstate New York. That doesn’t mean her findings weren’t legitimate—a male colleague presented her conclusions at the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1856. She went on to publish them in a paper with the American Journal of Science and Arts months later.
“She was a woman living in what was then considered a relatively scientific backwoods,” said Katharine Hayhoe, chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy who has researched Foote’s story and even connected with her living family members. “She was not paid to do it, which makes it even more impressive how absolutely determined she was to do this science.”
Despite Foote’s lack of resources, she made an incredible discovery. She assessed the sun’s force by filling glass cylinders with different gases to see their reactions to sunlight. The heat was highest when she tested the reaction to carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas we now know is responsible for driving much of the rise in our planet’s temperature.
And Foote was able to hypothesize our current reality over 166 years ago. “An atmosphere of that gas would give to our earth a high temperature,” she wrote in her paper.
“It is important that we recognize and we celebrate such kinds of female scientists.”
While Foote was investigating the workings of our planet, other scientists of this time (ahem, other men of this time) were preoccupied with abusing women. In fact, the mid-19th century marked an era where some scientists believed women were inferior to men due to their brain size. Many women were thrown into asylums simply for standing up to their husbands or speaking their minds.
Foote actively fought for women’s rights. Luckily for her, her husband, Elisha Foote, supported her. They were both feminists and attended the First Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York. There, they signed their name on a declaration demanding equality for women. Foote’s activism and scientific prowess are traits that resonate with many climate scientists who are women today. Though we’ve come a long way since the 1850s, we’ve still got a long way to go. Roughly more than a quarter of U.S. earth science faculty across U.S. universities are women. That’s nowhere near enough. (The numbers are even more pathetic for people of color in the field—imagine now women of color.)
“The bigger challenge we have these days is not barriers to entry but barriers to retention,” Hayhoe said, emphasizing how childcare often falls on women. “Academia just sort of assumes that you’re free, you’re available, you can attend these meetings. The reality is that you can’t when you have family responsibilities.”
Born in 1819, Foote was a mother to two girls. She didn’t let that keep her from her scientific curiosities. However, parenthood isn’t the only barrier women today face. There’s also discrimination. While all women are likely to experience some level of discrimination in the workplace, that’s exacerbated by race, gender identity, sexuality, religion, and any disabilities. Queer, trans, non-binary, and other femme folks are often exclued from women-held spaces—and that needs to change, said Sarah Myhre, a climate scientist who is currently the board president of Reclaiming STEM, an organization dedicated to diversity in science and technology.
“A feminism that doesn’t include people who are trans and nonbinary and gender-queer is not a feminism that I want to be a part of,” said Myhre, who has many questions about the white feminism that Foote helped shape. “There is a real need to apply a critical lens to the behavior of historic white American feminists because of the way they abandoned apporaches to racial equity.”
It’s unclear where Foote stood in regards to the liberation of Black people in the U.S. Was she an outspoken racist like Susan B. Anthony? Was she a closet abolitionist? We may never know; Foote didn’t leave us any diaries or journals. Still, her whiteness can be a disconnect for some modern-day climate scientists. Priya Shukla, a Ph.D. candidate at the Bodega Marine Laboratory of U.C. Davis, doesn’t see herself carrying forward Foote’s legacy in her own work.
“When I think about myself, I’m thinking about the women I share cultural context with,” said Shukla, whose parents are from India. “I represent the community that I come from and other communities of color that are on the frontlines of climate change. To me, the legacy I carry forward is of my ancestors.”
Shukla doesn’t speak for all women of color, of course, but her point is an important one. Maurine Ambani, regional coordinator for Forecast based Financing in eastern Africa, which uses weather forecasts to prepare for climate emergencies, appreciates the way Foote’s story can encourage young girls in Africa to grow interested in science.
“It is important that we recognize and we celebrate such kinds of female scientists so that it can encourage our young girls not to grow up with this notion that science is hard and good for boys and to realize that it is something that women can do and be very good at,” Ambani said.
Still, Foote wasn’t only interested in science. She was also a fine portrait and landscape painter. That’s the part of her that resonated most with Astrid Caldas, a senior climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists—Foote’s interest in the landscapes around her. Caldas grew up with a similar fascination with the natural world. Caldas would spend her childhood weekends with her father visiting the green spaces surrounding her in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
“We would climb trees, and we would see squirrels, and we would see lots of birds,” Caldas said. “There was that thing about nature that always kind of called to me.”
It’s a calling that many earth scientists know—a calling that can’t be taught in the classroom. What can be taught, however, is history. And history is an essential part of understanding a field and its value. Lesley Hughes, a professor of biology and climate researcher at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, is sure to include a lecture on Foote in her classes.
“I like to think that understanding the history of ideas in a subject gives students the context for them, which makes them more meaningful than if you just give them a whole lot of facts and figures,” Hughes said.
Facts and figures may not shake the world into action. Stories can. There’s power in whose stories we choose to tell. How many other stories have been lost to time—and injustice?