Modern climate change science began with this woman scientist

Climate change is one of the biggest threats facing the world today, with scores of decision makers, scientists and members of the public taking action to eradicate it. But did you know that modern climate change science is rooted in the discovery made by one woman in the 19th century? American scientist Eunice Foote discovered the effects of the sun’s radiation on certain gases in 1856, though this breakthrough has been universally credited to John Tyndall, who made a similar discovery three years later. Foote’s story only came to light in 2011, when researcher Raymond Sorenson published an article on Foote’s work. DiscovHER takes a closer look.

In 1856, Eunice Foote, an American scientist, conducted an experiment that demonstrated the effects of the sun’s radiation on certain gases. Using two glass containers fitted with thermometers on the inside, she compared the temperature differences observed in different types of gases, and of gases in different states, when exposed to the sun’s rays. With this beautifully simple experiment she discovered that condensed air heated up more than rarefied air, and that moist air reached higher temperatures than dry air. Notably, she found that the sun’s rays had a greater effect on carbonic acid gas than on common air, observing a difference of 20 degrees, and that the carbonic acid gas took much longer to cool down. Putting these discoveries together, she supposed that if the atmosphere had a higher concentration of these gases, the Earth’s air temperature would increase. In short, Eunice Foote discovered the greenhouse gas effect.


Foote presented her findings at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), an eminent organisation that brought together scientists from around the US to share their latest discoveries. Although the AAAS styled itself as progressive and accepted women as members, full equality was not on the cards. Foote’s paper had to be read by a man, Professor Joseph Henry of the Smithsonian, and it was curiously omitted from the society’s annual Proceedings, a published record of the papers presented at each annual meeting.


Three years later, in 1859, Irish physicist John Tyndall made a similar discovery on the effects of the sun’s rays on various gases that he presented to the Royal Society of London. Ever since, he has been given credit for this discovery. Although his comprehensive body of research has been integral to the advancement of climate science, it was Foote, not Tyndall, who first discovered the greenhouse gas effect.


Foote’s story might have disappeared in the annals of the history were it not for a handful of historical sources, including a journal article published in The Annual of Scientific Discovery by David Wells, an annual review of all major scientific progress that occurred in the year preceding publication. Were it not for these few records of Foote’s discovery, her work would have gone forever uncredited. Thanks to researcher Raymond Sorenson, who published the first modern article on Eunice Foote in 2011, the story of her ground-breaking discovery can finally emerge from obscurity.


Do you know any stories of women scientists who haven’t got the recognition they deserve? Let us know @4womeninscience.

L’Oréal–UNESCO
For Women in Science

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