Eunice Foote: The Almost Forgotten “Mother of Climate Change”

Eunice Newton Foote was born in Connecticut on July 17, 1819. She grew up in Bloomfield, New York, with her mother, father, and eleven siblings. As a distant relation of Isaac Newton, Foote had science in her blood and in her youth attended Troy Female Seminary—a school that believed in educating women in all subjects. After graduating, Foote married a progressive man—a judge, inventor, and mathematician—with whom she campaigned for women’s rights. Foote was a proud suffragist, and her signature can even be found on the Declaration of Sentiments (a document stating that men and women should be treated equally under American law). But first and foremost, Foote was a scientist—and one who would make a very significant discovery. Aptly named the mother of climate change, Foote discovered what we now call the greenhouse gas effect. 

Foote stayed up to date with scientific literature, perhaps inspired by the science she encountered in her schooling. It is speculated that she might have read a Scientific American volume that discussed theories about how the Earth is heated, spurring her to conduct an experiment of her own. Her experiment involved two glass cylinders containing thermometers. Into one, she pumped air, and in the other carbon dioxide. Placing both in sunlight, Foote found that the cylinder containing carbon dioxide trapped the most heat. She concluded that if the atmosphere were to contain increased levels of the gas, the temperature of Earth would rise. Of course, we now know this theory to be true, but Foote’s work was the first scientific investigation into this phenomenon. 

As is the case with many historical—and unfortunately, modern day—women in STEM, Foote’s work was disregarded. In 1956, her work was presented to some of the United States’ most elite scientists at the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)—not even by her, but by a male colleague—and they failed to recognize its implications. Three years later, however, when Irish scientist John Tyndall published the same findings, it was celebrated as a major breakthrough. With that, Foote’s discovery fell into obscurity—only to be found more than 50 years later, in 2010, by a retired geologist. 

Before her death in 1888, Foote published only one more scientific study, choosing instead to spend her time campaigning for women’s rights and inventing with her husband. 

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