Eunice Foote: How One Early American Scientist Contributed to Climate Research

Eunice Foote First Climate Scientist

These days, we all know about the effects of carbon on the environment. However, did you know it was a woman, Eunice Foote, who was one of the earliest documented climate scientists to make this discovery? Most likely you didn’t because for over 155 years she was forgotten–that is until recently.

While there have been many climate scientists throughout history, we chose to highlight this story since it's been omitted from textbooks for far too long.

Academia has been an exclusive community that neglects to recognize the efforts by Indigenous communities and other marginalized groups. But we believe in bringing these stories to the forefront and celebrating everyone contribution to climate sciences.

So, who is Eunice Foote and why don’t we know about her contribution to climate science?

Today those are the questions we’ll answer.

Who is Eunice Foote?

Eunice Newton Foote was an amateur American climate scientist in the mid-1800s whose experiments foreshadowed Earth’s greenhouse effect discovery. In addition to being a climate researcher, Foote was an early women’s rights activist and attended the first woman's rights convention.

As an editorial committee member, Foote was a signatory of the convention’s Declaration of Sentiments and was one of five women who prepared the convention proceedings for publication.

Foote’s now famous greenhouse experiment involved two glass cylinders filled with various substances, including moist air and carbon dioxide. She placed a thermometer in each container, then left them in the sunlight.

After that, she determined that a cylinder with moist air became warmer than one filled with dry air, and one filled with carbon dioxide was the warmest and took the longest to cool once removed from sunlight.

The experiment was simple, so she couldn’t determine how these differences resulted in higher temperatures at the time. However, from this early experiment, she still concluded the Earth would have been much warmer if its carbon dioxide levels were higher.

Foote appears to have been the first American to publish a paper observing the ability of water vapor and carbon dioxide to absorb heat and subsequently make the link between the variability of these elements in the atmosphere and the climate. And perhaps most strikingly, she made this discovery 3 years before Joseph Tyndall, who was given credit and is often cited as the founder of climate sciences in Europe. 

Additionally, there have been many Indigenous community scientists as well who have studied our planet's climate for thousands of years and we'll be highlighting those stories as well as this one.

Throughout history, we need to see more diverse voices in science, as well as celebrate women’s historical contributions to science.

Why the Scientific Community Forgot about Eunice Foote

There are a range of reasons Eunice Foote was barely a footnote herself in our science textbooks. For one, the scientific community likely forgot about Eunice Foote because she was a woman. Women have been making significant contributions to scientific research for centuries and not receiving credit, but this is only part of the story.

In addition to women in science not being welcomed by the scientific community, Foote was also considered an amateur scientist, further discrediting her and her work. Additionally, she was an American, and most climate research was being conducted in Europe at the time, so there was a disconnect between the scientific communities.

While her paper Circumstances Affecting the Heat of the Sun’s Rays, was published in 1856 and presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting, it’s hypothesized that it never reached Joseph Tyndall, who was eventually credited for the same discovery.

It’s also worth noting that while Foote published her work, a male colleague Joseph Henry presented it, and neither Foote’s paper nor Henry’s presentation of it was included in the conference proceedings.

How We Can Be like Her Doing Community Research

The beauty of community science is that anyone can collaborate and do scientific work. Often, it’s done in collaboration with professional scientists and scientific institutions, and the data collected by citizens help scientists answer research questions.

At our core, PurpleAir is composed of community scientists who can also become climate researchers. The data collected and available from the PurpleAir Map helps to identify research questions as well as collect and analyze data. For example, PurpleAir sensors were used in an environmental disparity study across the US during the beginning of the COVID pandemic.

Do you want to learn more and contribute to your community and to climate research with our air quality projects?

Monitor the Particulate Matter levels around the world with our free, real-time PurpleAir Map or join PurpleAir's mission to make air quality data accessible to everyone by investing in an air quality monitor for your home.

Together, we can be informed and make changes in our daily habits and the community to improve air quality. 

Note: We have updated this article to reflect that Eunice Foote was not the first climate scientist but was just one of the many early pioneers of climate science in North America. In addition to this, we would like to further acknowledge the work of many Indigenous communities around the world that have studied the land for thousands of years as well as they also deserve to be highlighted for their contributions to the study of our planet.

We appreciate all community feedback on our content as we all learn the various stories and histories of humanity.