An apology to Eunice Foote, the scientist and activist who first published on the role of CO2 in our atmosphere

Image shows two pages of Eunice Foote's article, "Circumstances affecting the Heat of the Sun's Rays", published in The American Journal of Science and Arts, November 1956. Full text can be found

If you want a text version of this article, and description of the tables in it, click here.

For some time now, I’ve had a basic history of climate science more or less memorized. It’s useful to know what we knew and when we knew it, particularly when talking to people who still believe long-debunked misinformation like the idea that the theory of man-made global warming was a post-hoc creation to explain observed warming.

For that entire time, I have been wrong about who first discovered the role that carbon dioxide plays in Earth’s climate.

My go-to narrative generally went from Fourier in the 1820s, to Tyndall in the 1850s and 1860s, to Arrhenius in the 1890s and early 1900s, to Keeling in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s a decent map of key moments in our understanding of CO2 and the global climate, and an effective demonstration of the ways in which the theory was developed, and how it was -and is – a predictive theory that has been supported by a vast body of evidence since its inception.

With simplicity, however, comes inaccuracy. I do not subscribe to the Great Man theory of history – none of the men listed above made their achievements alone, and all of them built on the work of people who had gone before. They were part of communities of people working to understand the universe. The act of singling them out to create a simple, punchy narrative necessarily hides the work of countless other people that contributed to the publications that “history” chooses to single out.

My error, however, goes beyond this necessary over-simplification of history. The reality is that Tyndall, for all his many accomplishments, should not occupy that spot in the story. That place rightfully belongs to one Eunice Newton Foote, who published on the role of CO2 in our climate in 1856 – four years before Tyndall did. Whether through ignorance or malice, Tyndall did not reference her work when he published his own work on the subject. As my discussion of communication between scientists implies, and this linked abstract notes, “From a contemporary perspective, one might expect that Tyndall would have known of her findings.”, particularly since much of that communication is centered around such publications.

Beyond her work as a scientist, Foote was active in the movement for women’s suffrage in the United States, and was a signatory on the Declaration of Sentiments from the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention.

For a woman like Eunice Foote—who was also active in the women’s rights movement—it could not have been easy to be relegated to the audience of her own discovery. The Road to Seneca Falls by Judith Wellman shows that Foote signed the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention Declaration of Sentiments, and was appointed alongside Elizabeth Cady Stanton herself to prepare the Convention proceedings for later publication. As with many women scientists forgotten by history, Foote’s story highlights the more subtle forms of discrimination that have kept women on the sidelines of science.

Foote’s role in history was uncovered by researcher Raymond Sorenson, who published a paper on her in 2011. The greatest service historians provide to us is in their work to sort through the various accounts and records of history, and dig up truths about our past which are so often buried under layers of ego, bigotry, and political power games. In a society founded on science, that lionizes those who first discover new facts about the world, it’s good to see recognition of a woman whose efforts were wrongly ignored for so long.


  1. says

    The reality is that Tyndall, for all his many accomplishments, should not occupy that spot in the story. That place rightfully belongs to one Eunice Newton Foote, who published on the role of CO2 in our climate in 1956 – four years before Tyndall did.

    Another small error, just a typo really, and it shouldn’t confuse people since it was easily spotted by me and I know nothing about the subject, but Foote was unlikely to be publishing in 1956 and also a signatory of the Declaration of Sentiments in 1848 – that would mean her adult, productive life spanned more than 108 years. Also, since Tyndall published in the 1850s and 1860s, it was clear from what you wrote that Foote’s (relevant) publication must have been 1856, not 1956.

    Obviously a typo, but I thought I’d mention it in case you wanted to correct it.

  2. blf says

    (I originally posted the following elsewhere — but seem to have misplaced the reference — shortly after the Grauniad’s short article (Sept 2019).)

    An unsung climate hero comes in from the cold (quoted in full (too short for sensible excerpting)):

    US woman Eunice Foote only now receiving credit for first identifying greenhouse effect

    This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Eunice Foote, a pioneer in climate research of whom few people have heard. She showed that water vapour and carbon dioxide helped to heat Earth’s atmosphere, and realised that when the atmosphere had higher levels of carbon dioxide it made the climate much warmer.

    Her work was presented in August 1856 at a prestigious scientific conference in the US, but had to be given by a male colleague because women were not allowed to give talks at the meeting. [AAAS, John Henry† of the Smithsonian presented her paper –blf] 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.

    In 1859, the renowned physicist John Tyndall, working in London, 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. 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. Despite Foote’s insights, her contribution to climate research became a footnote in history and is only now starting to come to light.

    I have no recollection of hearing of Eunice Foote, and had thought John Tyndall was the first to make the link. Although the proceedings didn’t include Foote’s paper, it was published (not just a summary), and there was even an article in Scientific American about the work.

    Interestingly, in the comments, one reader points out that in 1824 “[Joseph] Fourier says the surface of the Earth is warmer than it should be, it must be doing something like a greenhouse.” Also, How Joseph Fourier discovered the greenhouse effect:

    In his mathematical theory of heat conduction, Fourier based his reasoning on Newton’s law of cooling, with the flow of heat between two adjacent particles being proportional to the difference in temperature. He wrote that “heat, like gravity, penetrates every substance of the universe, its rays occupy all parts of space”. He established the fundamental equation that governs the diffusion or spreading out of heat, and solved it by using the infinite series of trigonometric functions that we now call Fourier series.


    Fourier was the first person to study the Earth’s temperature from a mathematical perspective. He examined variations in temperature between day and night, and between summer and winter, and concluded that the planet was much warmer than a simple analysis might suggest.

    Fourier calculated that it would be much colder than it is if the incoming radiation from the sun were the only warming effect. His idea that the Earth’s atmosphere acts like an insulator is the first formulation of what we now call the greenhouse effect. […]

    The NOAA also has an article about Ms Foote, Happy 200th birthday to Eunice Foote, hidden climate science pioneer.

    As the NOAA article (and others) notes, Ms Foote (she is not known to have had a degree) was also an active woman’s rights campaigner:

    Eunice Foote’s place in the scientific community, or lack thereof, weaves into the broader story of women’s rights. 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. Eunice Foote’s name is fifth on the list of signatures on the document. (Her husband, Elisha Foote, also signed.)

      † Henry clearly thought the situation absurd (Eunice Foote, John Tyndall and a question of priority):

    Eunice Foote was disadvantaged not only by this lack of an academic community in America and poor communication with Europe, but by two further factors: her gender and her amateur status. On introducing her paper at the AAAS, according to the New York Daily Tribune, Henry commented that ‘the sphere of woman embraces not only the beautiful and the useful, but the true’, and described his admiration for the well-known mathematician and scientific author Mary Somerville. At the end, he reportedly made some ‘gallant remarks in regard to the ladies’. He was making the case for female participation in scientific research, but against the background of a resistant social culture […]

    From the NOAA article:

    Science was one of those domains where women were struggling to be heard, and Foote is among the pioneers whose work paved the way toward acceptance. A column in the September 1856 issue of Scientific American, titled “Scientific Ladies — Experiments with Condensed Gases,” began, “Some have not only entertained, but expressed the mean idea, that women do not possess the strength of mind necessary for scientific investigation.” The writer went on to describe Foote’s experiments as evidence to the contrary, concluding:

    The columns of the Scientific American have been oftentimes graced with articles on scientific subjects, by ladies, which would do honor to men of the highest scientific reputation; and the experiments of Mrs Foot [sic] afford abundant evidence of the ability of woman to investigate any subject with originality and precision.

  3. says

    @Crip Dyke #1 Thanks for spotting that! Fixed it.

    @blf – one thing to note about Fourier is that the Greenhouse Effect was one of two hypotheses he put forward, the other being the Cosmic Ray Hypothesis, which continued being touted by certain people into the 21st century, due to its political utility.

    The idea that the extra heat was coming from outer space, rather than insulation from atmospheric gases, is a compelling one if your paycheck depends on continued emission of those gases.

  4. says

    OT, but this:

    This convention is where the Declaration of Sentiments was presented, the document written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton,

    is actually a gross oversimplification. Stanton did a lot of the scribing, but the document was written through a group process. She’s often given credit for it since she was also responsible for reading sections out loud and asking for feedback, then reading it again later for verification that the new version was going to be final. She wasn’t even the only person who did this, but from the sources we have, she was probably far more responsible for this particular role than anyone else. But that doesn’t mean that others present didn’t chime in with feedback and proposed wording (and, in fact, they did).

    So… “written” in the sense of “scribed”, sure. But not in the sense of “authored”. She was a powerful influence on the final document, and deserves great credit. But that’s not the same as saying she wrote it herself.

  5. StevoR says

    Thanks for this post – very informative, interesting and the first I can recall hearing of Eunice Foote too. Great to know about her and will share.

    PS. Sorry for the delayed resposne here, saw and meant to read earlier but then got distracted.

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