Chances are you’ve never heard of Eunice Foote, but she was the first person to document climate change. Five years before the man credited with having discovered it.
Foote’s experiment, which was documented in a brief scientific article in 1856, noted that “the highest effect of the sun’s rays I have found in carbonic acid gas [carbon dioxide]. “
This discovery laid the foundation for modern understanding of the “greenhouse gas effect“, but recognition was given to an Irish scientist named John Tyndall in 1861.
Who was Eunice Foote?
Eunice Foote was 37 when she made her climate breakthrough. Raised on a farm in Connecticut, United States, in her late teens, she attended Troy Female Seminary (later Emma Willard School) – America’s first prep school for women.
Based in Troy, New York, it was the first school to provide young women with an education comparable to that of a man, with subjects including advanced math and science.
One of its teachers was Amos Eaton, who co-founded the nearby Rensselaer School for Boys and changed the way science was taught in America.
It may have also helped that his father shares a name with one of the founding fathers of science – Isaac Newton.
Along with her interest in science, Foote was also an active activist for women’s rights and was on the editorial board from 1848. Seneca Falls Convention, the first women’s rights conference, hosted by eminent suffragist Elizabeth Candy Stanton.
How did she find out about climate change?
Foote scientific article ‘On the heat under the rays of the sun’ was published in the American Journal of Science and Arts in November 1856.
The experiment she conducted involved two glass cylinders, two thermometers, and an air pump. She pumped carbon dioxide into one cylinder and air into the other, then placed them in the sun.
“The receiver containing the gas itself became much hotter – significantly more than the other – and when it was removed it took several times longer to cool,” she says in her article.
The higher temperature in the carbon dioxide cylinder showed Foote that carbon dioxide retains the most heat. She performed the experiment on a range of different gases, including hydrogen and oxygen.
“By comparing the heat of the sun in different gases, I found that it was in hydrogen gas, 108 °; in common air, 106 °; in gaseous oxygen, 108 °; and in carbonic acid gas, 125 °.
This discovery led Foote to conclude that “An atmosphere of this gas would give our earth a high temperature; and if, as some suppose, at some time in its history the air had mixed with it in greater proportion than now, an increase in temperature due to its own action as well as to increased weight must necessarily have resulted.
It was the first scientific recognition that CO2 had the power to change the temperature of the Earth.
Why did John Tyndall get the credit?
John Tyndall was an Irish physicist, who was already well known within the scientific community for his work on magnetism and polarity when Foote published his findings.
In fact, Tyndall had published an article on color blindness in the same edition of the American Journal of Science and Arts that Foote had published about his carbon dioxide experiment.
Then, in 1861, John Tyndall demonstrated the absorbent nature of gases, including oxygen, water vapor, and carbon dioxide. Using a ratio spectrophotometer of his own design, he measured the infrared absorption of these gases in what would later become the “greenhouse effect”.
There is debate as to whether Tyndall stole Foote’s research, although it may be fairer to say that his reading influenced his future findings – although he did not mention it in his discoveries.
Either way, the result is the same – Tyndall was remembered as one of the founding fathers of climate change science, while Foote was forgotten until the turn of the 21st century.
Tyndall remained a leading scientist until his wife accidentally killed him in 1893 by giving him a lethal dose of chloral hydrate, which he took to treat his insomnia.
What did climate science look like at the start?
The 19th century was a turning point in climate science and the use of fossil fuels. In 1800, the world’s population first reached one billion, and the Industrial Revolution began to take hold – fueled by the development of James Watt’s steam engine in the late 18th century.
In the 1880s, coal was used to generate electricity for factories, while the first automobile, Karl Benz’s “Motorwagen” heralded the era of private mass transport.
In 1927, carbon emissions from fossil fuels and industry reached one billion tonnes per year. Just for context, in 2019 fossil fuel consumption reached 36.7 billion tonnes.
These massive societal changes were not fully understood at first, and Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius believed in 1896 that the greenhouse effect and the subsequent temperature rise from burning coal – which he correctly predicted would be a few degrees – could in fact be beneficial to mankind.
In fact, the greenhouse effect and its cataclysmic consequences did not begin to be taken seriously until the middle of the 20th century, after American scientist Wallace Broecker coined the term “global warming”.
Other forgotten women scientists
Foote’s contribution to the history of climate science was finally rediscovered in 2010 by Ray Sorenson, a retired geologist. He published his discovery and in 2019, the University of California at Santa Barbara held an exhibition on Foote’s work.
Sadly, Foote isn’t the only female scientist to be written out of history or have a man credit their findings. Lise Meitner, a key member of the science team that discovered nuclear fission, was overlooked for a Nobel Prize, which went to her co-scientist Otto Hahn.
Fortunately, women are starting to get the recognition they deserve, as shown in films like “Hidden Figures,” which tells the story of NASA mathematicians – Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson -.
The Three Women of Color played key roles in NASA’s early years, but were historically ignored until the film’s release in 2016.