Eunice Foote and her Discovery of Greenhouse Gasses

Karenna Bryan
March 1, 2024
Women's History Month

Women’s History Month, which takes place from March 1 - March 31, was established to honor women and their accomplishments throughout history. This event began in 1982 when Congress petitioned President Regan to make the first week of March Women’s History Week. Later, in 1987, it officially became Women’s History Month. This month is to remember women such as Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, Rosa Parks, and many more women who have helped pave the way for women’s rights.

Since the beginning, women have made significant contributions to society but haven’t always received the credit they deserve. In many cases, their accomplishments have been overshadowed or experienced by others taking credit for their work. For example, Monopoly was created in 1935 by Charles Darrow, but not many know the original design came from Elizabeth Magie. In 1950, Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s husband sold her creative paintings for profit and took credit for them. She sued him for defamation and won, but he spent all the money, so she received nothing.

This has occurred in civil rights, pop culture, and science. In 1950, Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu and two male colleagues who worked on the Manhattan Project at Columbia University discovered the law of parity. The male colleagues went on to receive Nobel Prizes, but Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu was excluded.

Even with climate education, women are overshadowed for their accomplishments. This is where Eunice Newton Foote’s story comes in.

Eunice Newton Foote was born in Goshen, Connecticut, on July 17, 1819. She was an educated woman and attended Troy Female Seminary; at the time, it was the first place women could attend to receive a higher education.

Photo of Eunice Foote
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Foote was a female amateur scientist who made the ground-breaking discovery about greenhouse gasses that influence how we look at the environment today.

Through her own experiments, she learned that heat builds up inside when sunlight shines on carbon dioxide in close proximity. These experiments included two glass cylinders that contained different substances, such as moist air and carbon dioxide. Foote placed the cylinders under sunlight with a thermometer in each one and let them sit. While both cylinders warmed up, she concluded the cylinder with carbon dioxide was the warmest. According to her paper written in 1956, Foote wrote her conclusion, “An atmosphere of that gas would give to our earth a high temperature.”

Foote’s findings have helped scientists build a foundation on how greenhouse gasses have and will affect the earth. While greenhouse gasses are essential for our survival, burning fossil fuels has led to more carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. The effect of this is rising temperatures worldwide. Her discoveries led her to want to learn more about Earth’s past. She hypothesized that if the carbon dioxide levels were higher, the earth would have been warmer in past centuries.

Visual of Greenhouse
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Foote wrote her findings in a paper titled “Circumstances Affecting the Heat of Sun’s Rays.” The paper was presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science during August in 1856. However, the paper wasn’t presented by Eunice Foote but by Joseph Henry instead. The reason for this is unknown.

Instead of Eunice being credited for her work, scientist John Tyndall is mentioned on historical records as having discovered greenhouse gases. Three years after Foote made the revelation, John Tyndall, a scientist, found the same revelation that Foote did. Tyndall released a paper titled “Note on the Transmission of Radiant Heat Through Gaseous Bodies.” The paper was presented at Proceedings of the Royal Society of London and did not credit Foote.

The experiments differed because Foote used the sun’s energy and focused on the visible spectrum. Tyndall took a different route and used spectroscopy to pivot the attention to the infrared spectrum. It is believed that Tyndall was unaware of Foote and her work.

Due to this, Eunice Foote’s work was left to be forgotten and uncredited.

Around 100 years after Foote died in 1869, a few female history scientists discovered Foote as an educated woman in the pre-Civil War American era. Women studies scholar Elizabeth Wagner Reed connected Foote and her revelation in greenhouse gasses. Reed faced gender discrimination battles when she and her husband studied the evolution of the fruit fly, Drosophila. While the public recognized her husband’s work, they didn’t give Reed credit.

Declaration of Sentiments at Women's Rights Convention
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Foote found her way by fighting for women’s rights in the 1800s. She and her husband attended the first Women’s Rights convention in Seneca Falls in July 1840s. This convention is where women demand equality among their male peers. This convention began the fight for women's right to vote, which wouldn’t happen until 1919.

Women’s History Month is important to acknowledge past and present women who have helped to evolve society. Remembering Eunice Foote’s accomplishments will help to keep her legacy going. So, the next time the conversation surrounding greenhouse gasses comes up, remember the woman who started it: Eunice Foote.

Karenna Bryan
March 1, 2024

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