Women’s History Month is a fine time to highlight three women who impacted creation-care in the United States.
When it comes to environmental history, many have heard of John Muir, veritable founder of the U.S. preservation movement and first president of the Sierra Club, established in 1892. But few know that Muir’s most important mentor was a woman named Jeanne C. Carr (1825-1903). Their relationship is captured in letters they wrote to each other over 30 years.
One thing becomes abundantly clear when reviewing their correspondence: without Carr’s mentorship, there would have been no John Muir as we know him today.
Both Carr and Muir were devout Christians who understood the rest of creation as “the Book of Nature,” something that revealed lessons about the Creator. They met at the University of Wisconsin in 1861 when Muir enrolled there as a 21-year-old freshman.
Carr, 13 years Muir’s senior, was the wife of faculty member Ezra Carr. Early on she recognized and called out the gifts Muir possessed: intelligence, keen observation, the ability to reach others through writing and a passion for the rest of creation. Carr had these gifts as well, and in Muir she found someone with whom she could share her love for God’s creation.
In one of her early letters to Muir she wrote: “as a woman I have often to consider not the lilies only, in their perfection, but the humble honest wayside grasses and weeds, sturdily filling their places through such repeated discouragements.” Carr shared more than her personal insights; she lent Muir books and writings that shaped the rest of his life.
One of the most important such sources was the thought of a Baptist pastor and personal friend of Carr’s, Walter R. Brooks, who emphasized the unity, integrity and intrinsic worth of all of creation. These themes would permeate Muir’s subsequent articles and books.
Carr also introduced Muir to luminaries like Ralph Waldo Emerson, who helped launch Muir’s writing career and his work as an activist seeking to preserve wilderness and pristine landscapes. Both Carr and Muir hoped that preservation would allow God’s “divine lessons” to show forth in areas untouched by civilization.
Another pioneer in what would come to be known as environmentalism was Ellen Swallow Richards (1842–1911). She dealt mainly with the problem of pollution and worked to create an environment conducive to human health.
She was the first woman to obtain a degree from a scientific institution, earning a bachelor’s in chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1870, and eventually becoming an instructor in sanitary chemistry there (a rank she held at her death). She established the first state water-quality standards in the nation and the first modern municipal sewage treatment plant, in Lowell, Mass.
From 1887 to 1897 Richards served as official water analyst for the state Board of Health while continuing as an instructor at MIT. Her research brought about factory and food inspection laws in Massachusetts, the first such laws in the nation. She and her colleague, A.G. Woodman, wrote a classic text in the field of sanitary engineering: Air, Water, and Food from a Sanitary Standpoint.
Richards also worked hard to help other women apply what she had learned. She published numerous books such as The Chemistry of Cooking and Cleaning: A Manual for House-keepers, and established home economics as its own discipline by setting up model kitchens open to the public, establishing programs of study and organizing conferences.
Toward the end of her life, she said at an MIT convocation: “The quality of life depends on the ability of society to teach its members how to live in harmony with their environment—defined first as the family, then with the community, then with the world and its resources.”
A third pioneer was Alice Hamilton (1869-1970), founder of the discipline of occupational health. She graduated from the University of Michigan’s medical school in 1893 and eventually became the first woman to hold a professorship at Harvard Medical School.
In 1897, after accepting a teaching position at the Women’s Medical School of Northwestern University, she moved into Jane Addams’ Hull House in Chicago. As she met the neighborhood families, she learned of the high numbers of widows and sought to determine the causes of their husbands’ deaths. She discovered carbon monoxide poisoning in steelworkers, mercury poisoning in hatters, and lead poisoning in various occupational settings.
In 1910 Hamilton became director of the Occupational Disease Commission when it was created in Illinois—the first such commission in the world. As a result of its findings, several workers’ compensation laws were passed in Illinois, entitling workers to compensation for health impairment and injuries sustained on the job.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Order Kindred & Related Spirits, the edited letters of Carr and Muir, at Amazon.com!
For how you can protect your family from health threats in the environment today, see www.healthyfamiliesnow.org.
Jim Ball is Executive Vice President for Policy and Climate Change at the Evangelical Environmental Network and author of the award-winning book, “Global Warming and the Risen LORD: Christian Discipleship and Climate Change.”