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Suffragist Eunice Foote, First Scientist to Discover Global Warming, Receives Overdue Recognition

The 1850s natural scientist and U.S. suffragist who first described global warming is finally getting some of the recognition she deserves, 200 years after her birth.

Eunice Newton Foote was the pioneering climate researcher who first “showed that water vapour and carbon dioxide helped to heat Earth’s atmosphere, and realized that when the atmosphere had higher levels of carbon dioxide it made the climate much warmer,” The Guardian reports. “Her work was presented in August 1856 at a prestigious scientific conference in the U.S., but had to be given by a male colleague because women were not allowed to give talks at the meeting. Her study was not even included in the conference proceedings, although a summary of the talk appeared in a report about the meeting a year later.”

The presentation by Foote’s colleague, Joseph Henry, took place at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the U.S. government’s climate.gov site recalls.

“Her experimental design wasn’t sophisticated enough to reveal how these atmospheric characteristics were able to influence solar heating. Her experiments didn’t demonstrate that water vapour and greenhouse gases raise Earth’s temperature not by absorbing incoming sunlight, but by absorbing heat radiated by the surface,” climate.gov states. But they still brought her to the “remarkable insight” that “an atmosphere of that gas 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… must have necessarily resulted.”

Three years later, in 1859, renowned UK physicist John Tyndall “demonstrated how certain gases such as carbon dioxide and water vapour in the atmosphere warmed the climate—what later became known as the greenhouse effect,” The Guardian notes. “He made no mention of Foote in his research, and whether he did not know of her work or deliberately ignored it remains unknown. But Tyndall’s experiments became widely accepted as a cornerstone of work on the greenhouse effect,” and the world-renowned Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research now bears his name.

“Eunice Foote’s place in the scientific community, or lack thereof, weaves into the broader story of women’s rights,” climate.gov adds. “Seven years before her paper, Foote was present at the first Woman’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, on July 19-20, 1848. This convention is where the Declaration of Sentiments was presented, the document written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, that demanded equality with men in social status and legal rights, including the right to vote.”