This Day in History

Aug. 23, 1856: Women’s Rights Activist Eunice Newton Foote Confirms “Greenhouse Effect”

Time Periods: 1850
Themes: Climate Justice, Environment, Women's History

In 1856, U.S. scientist and women’s rights activist Eunice Newton Foote conducted a series of experiments to measure how quickly several gases warmed in the sun. She concluded that atmospheric gases like carbon dioxide trap heat in the atmosphere, noting: “An atmosphere of that gas would give to our earth a high temperature.”

Foote documented her observations in the paper “Circumstances affecting the heat of the Sun’s rays,” which was presented at an American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting on August 23, 1856. The American Journal of Science also published her paper that same year. Three years later, Irish physicist John Tyndall arrived at the same conclusion — and is often credited instead of Foote.

As noted in Clive Thompson’s article How 19th Century Scientists Predicted Global Warming,

Eunice Foote, a pioneering scientist and women’s rights activist. Art by Catherine Kwon.

Eunice Foote, a pioneering scientist and women’s rights activist. Art by Catherine Kwon.

Foote had launched the first true experimental work in climate physics, but, tragically, it was lost to history. When time came to present her research before the American Association for the Advancement of Science — among the country’s most eminent scientific gatherings — they didn’t allow women to speak, so it was read by a male colleague.

Climate scientists for more than a century, clustered in the early decades primarily in Europe, did not appear to discuss or cite Foote’s work.

“She had three strikes against her,” as John Perlin, a researcher at the University of California in Santa Barbara notes. “She was female. She was an amateur. And she was an American.” Her work only resurfaced in the last decade, as papers uncovering it emerged. Read more.

 In the 1900s, the phenomenon Foote wrote about would come to be known as the “greenhouse effect.”

Read more in Ann-Marie Abunyewa’s essay Hidden Histories: Eunice Newton Foote — The Woman Who Discovered the Greenhouse Effect.


This event is included on the Zinn Education Project’s Climate Crisis Timeline.