Great women in science: Eunice Newton Foote and climate change predictions

In 1856, during the American Industrial Revolution, a scientist named Eunice Newton Foote (17 July 1819 – 30 September 1888) warned that too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could cause the Earth to warm. Her warning was ignored.

Foote’s research and position in the science community of the 1850s foreshadowed how both climate change and women would be treated by society for decades. Despite her warning, it was 140 years later that the first global action on climate change, the Kyoto protocol, took place.

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Female scientists were discounted by the (overwhelmingly male) scientific community of the 1850s as irrelevant and incapable of conducting scientific research. Foote wasn't allowed to present her own work at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 1856. That task was undertaken by the highly regarded Joseph Henry, first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.

While summaries of her climate research were published during her lifetime, it got only a page and a half in the American Journal of Science and Arts in November 1856 and a short summary in the 1857 Annual of Scientific Discovery.

Today, her experiments are considered as relevant precursors to those done in 1859 by John Tyndall, the scientist who proved the greenhouse effect comes from gases like water vapour and carbon dioxide absorbing heat radiated from the surface of the Earth (not from the sun's rays) and redirecting it back toward Earth.

Despite her remarkable insight in 1856 into the influence that higher carbon dioxide levels in the past would have had on Earth’s temperature, Foote’s life and research went largely unnoticed as part of the history of climate science until recently – it only came into focus to a modern community of scientists on the 200th anniversary of her birth in 2019.

She was born as Eunice Newton in 1819 in Goshen, Connecticut, and was educated at the Troy Female Seminary in 1836–37 where she was taught scientific theory by Amos Eaton. Her husband was Elisha Foote, an American judge, inventor and mathematician.

Eunice’s interest in climate science arose as a result of her early experimentation which demonstrated the interactions of the sun's rays on different gases. She performed experiments on carbon dioxide, air and hydrogen, and concluded that carbon dioxide trapped the most heat.

She later became interested in the history of the Earth and, at some point in this interest, she theorised that "an atmosphere of that gas [CO], would give to our earth a high temperature; and if, as some suppose, at one period of its history, the air had mixed with it a larger proportion than at present, an increased temperature from its own action, as well as from increased weight, must have necessarily resulted”.

Foote illustrated her findings in a paper entitled Circumstances affecting the heat of the sun's rays, which was accepted at the eighth AAAS meeting on 23 August 1856 in Albany, NY and widely reported.

Today, we recognise Foote as being one of the first and most important climate scientists. More at:

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