Women’s History Month – Eunice Foote

Women's History Month: Eunice Foote

This post marks the second instalment dedicated to Women’s History Month, dedicated towards celebrating women’s contribution to society. In this post, we will present an incredibly influential woman, who until recently, was not credited for her findings. Her name is Eunice Foote and she predicted global warming in 1856.

“The receiver containing the gas became itself much heated – very sensibly more so than the other – and on being removed, it was many times as long in cooling.” (Foote, 1856).

This sentence was written by Eunice Foote in her 1856 publication; “Circumstances affecting the Heat of the Sun’s Rays”, the gas she was referring to was carbon dioxide. Thus, in this publication in 1856, Foote discovered the heating properties of carbon dioxide, predicting future climate change.

This experiment involved comparing the impact dry and damp air as well as different gases on the temperature inside the glass. Foote found that damp air heated much more quickly than drier air, and carbon dioxide heated more-so than other gases when in the sun. Foote subsequently concluded, as seen in the quote below, that if the earth’s atmosphere contained large amounts of carbon dioxide, there would be global warming.

“An atmosphere of that gas (carbon dioxide) would give to our earth a high temperature” (Foote, 1856)

Hence, Foote predicted the ‘greenhouse effect’ of both water vapour and carbon dioxide.

These findings were presented at the 1858 American Association for the Advancement of Science Meeting by a man, though the findings were not noted in the conference proceedings (Shapiro, 2021). The findings were also published in ‘American Journal of Science in Arts; and in ‘Annual of Scientific Discovering’ (Huddleston, 2019), despite this, the discovery seemed to be largely ignored by history.

John Tyndall, a well-respected physicist, came to the same conclusion as Foote just 3 years later. Leading to Tyndall being celebrated as the person who discovered the impact of greenhouse gases until Eunice Foote’s article was discovered much later in 2010 (Shapiro, 2021).

This overlooking of Foote was said to be due to her gender and status as an amateur scientist, meaning people were more likely to overlook her work. While Foote was referenced in a piece named ‘Scientific ladies- experiments with condensed gases’, her conclusions on carbon dioxide were ignored (Jackson, 2019).

The life of Eunice Foote

Eunice Foote was raised in the first women’s preparatory school in America, a school which had an emphasis on science and maths (Daunton, 2022) and she was a distant relative of famous mathematician Isaac Newton (Brockell, 2021).

Born in 1819 and dying in 1888 in the United States, it is ironic that Foote lived during the beginning of the industrial revolution, a revolution which catalysed carbon dioxide and fossil fuel burning. Today, carbon dioxide is 50% higher than pre-industrial levels (NOAA, 2022), with considerable implications for global warming.

Eunice Foote thus lived and died without knowing her invaluable contribution to studies of climate change and humankind. One can only imagine the numerous other pioneering women who have had their contributions clouded due to their gender.

Written by Climate Change Communicator volunteer, Catrin Lewis. 

Brockell, G. (2021) Did the ‘father of climate science’ steal his discovery from Eunice Newton Foote?, The Washington Post. WP Company. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2021/11/17/eunice-newton-foote-john-tyndall/ (Accessed: January 24, 2023).

Daunton, N. (2022) Eunice Foote discovered climate change in 1856 – before men did, euronews. Available at: https://www.euronews.com/green/2022/02/18/this-woman-discovered-climate-change-5-years-before-the-man-who-gets-credit-for-it (Accessed: January 24, 2023).

Foote, E. (1856) “Circumstances affecting the Heat of the Sun’s Rays” American Journal of Science and Arts (1820-1879), 22(16).

Huddleston, A. (2019) Happy 200th birthday to Eunice Foote, Hidden Climate Science Pioneer, NOAA Climate.gov. Available at: https://www.climate.gov/news-features/features/happy-200th-birthday-eunice-foote-hidden-climate-science-pioneer

Jackson, R. (2019) “Eunice Foote, John Tyndall and a question of priority,” Notes and Records: the Royal Society Journal of the History of Science, 74(1), pp. 105–118. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1098/rsnr.2018.0066.

NOAA (2022) Carbon dioxide now more than 50% higher than pre-industrial levels (no date) National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Available at: https://www.noaa.gov/news-release/carbon-dioxide-now-more-than-50-higher-than-pre-industrial-levels 

Shapiro, M. (2021) Eunice Newton Foote’s nearly forgotten discovery, Physics Today. American Institute of Physics. Available at: https://physicstoday.scitation.org/do/10.1063/pt.6.4.20210823a/full/ (Accessed: January 24, 2023).

Wikimedia Commons, 2021. Scan from Eunice Foote’s “Circumstances affecting the heat of the Sun’s rays (1856)