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Eunice Foote to UCSB A Story of Women, Science and Climate Change

Eunice Foote: A Climate Science Pioneer

Despite the lack of educational opportunities available to most American women during the early nineteenth century, Foote was fortunate to attend the Troy Female Seminary, the only school of higher education that offered a scientific curriculum available to women at the time. As a student, she had access to a teaching chemistry lab—one of very few worldwide—which prepared her to design her later experiments with atmospheric gases. John Perlin’s assertion that Eunice Foote should be considered the founder of climate science is based on Foote’s three contributions:

  • She was the first to experimentally demonstrate that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas.
  • She was the first to suggest that more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would result in a hotter Earth.
  • She was the first to suggest that changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide had strongly influenced temperature levels over the history of the earth.

"An atmosphere of that gas would give to our earth a high temperature."

– Eunice Foote, 1856 in her paper "Circumstances Affecting the Heat of the Sun's Rays." Published in the American Journal of Science and Arts

Joseph Henry

Since women were not allowed to present their own work, Joseph Henry presented Eunice Foote's paper at the 8th annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Henry was a highly regarded scientist who was also the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.

"Scientific Ladies--Experiments with Condensed Gases" in Scientific American, September 13, 1856

In September 1856, several weeks after Joseph Henry presented her experiments, Scientific American featured Foote’s work for two reasons: 1. It proved that women could do science as well as men and 2. it described--better than the accepted theory that the earth was a fiery ball-- why the tree-less Devonian Period was hotter than the succeeding Carboniferous Period. Foote's experiments led her to attribute the cooler temperature of the Carboniferous Period to the formation of the great coal beds which removed large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

"Some have not only entertained, but expressed the mean idea, that women do not possess the strength of mind necessary for scientific investigation. Owing to the nature of woman's duties, few have had the leisure or the opportunities to pursue science experimentally, but those of them who have had the taste and the opportunity to do so, have shown as much power and ability to investigate and observe correctly as men."

– excerpt from "Scientific Ladies--Experiments with Condensed Gases"