Discover the hidden history of an unsung climate hero
Eunice Foote warned too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would warm the Earth but was her work overlooked or deliberately suppressed?

A 19th-century scientist and suffragette was the first person to discover carbon dioxide could warm the Earth but her work was lost to history.

Eunice Foote devised a series of ingenious experiments that involved isolating the component gases that make up the atmosphere into glass cylinders and leaving them in sunlight. She discovered the cylinder filled with carbon dioxide trapped the most heat and “was many times as long in cooling”.

“An atmosphere of that gas would give to our Earth a high temperature,” she wrote in her 1856 paper Circumstances Affecting the Heat of the Sun’s Rays.

Foote’s paper was presented at the 1856 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) by Professor Joseph Henry, who was founding director of The Smithsonian Institution. It is not clear why Foote did not present it herself – she did present a paper on a different topic at the event the following year.

Had it not been lost to history, her work would have formed the basis of modern climate science.

Three years later, the Irish scientist John Tyndall published his famous paper identifying the gases responsible for the greenhouse effect. He did not cite Foote’s earlier paper and, for more than 160 years, he has been credited with discovering the link between carbon dioxide and global warming.

On the face of it, the significance of the paper passed everyone by who could have had a particular interest in it,” said scientist and historian Roland Jackson.

Some historians think Tyndall was simply unaware of Foote’s paper. Others say he must have been since it was published in the November 1856 issue of The American Journal of Science and Arts (page 382) and he had an article about colour blindness in the same issue (page 143) – although he would not be the first scholar to thumb straight to his own work.

Tyndall – with his rigorous training and state-of-the-art laboratory – conducted a more sophisticated experiment but Foote’s hypothesis that “long-term changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels could affect the temperature of the Earth was remarkably prescient,” said Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University. She "was the first person to say in print that if carbon dioxide levels were higher, the planet would be warmer".

A prominent suffragette

Foote was a central figure in the early women’s rights movement and was the fifth signatory to the famous 1848 Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments. The Declaration stated: “The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman.” It added: “He monopolized nearly all the profitable employments, and from those she is permitted to follow, she receives but a scanty remuneration.” The Declaration called for “equal participation with men” in the professions.

Born in Connecticut in 1819, Eunice Newton Foote was one of 11 children, and was a descendant of the Enlightenment mathematician and physicist Sir Isaac Newton. She attended Troy Female Seminary, a school that had its own laboratories and encouraged girls to attend science lectures at a nearby college.

The hidden history of Foote was uncovered by petroleum geologist Ray Sorenson who stumbled across her work in the 1857 issue of Annual of Scientific Discovery, which contained a short report about the AAAS meeting where Foote’s paper was presented by Professor Henry.

The report said: “Prof. Henry then read a paper by Mrs Eunice Foote, prefacing it with a few words, to the effect that science was of no country and of no sex. The sphere of woman embraces not only the beautiful and the useful, but the true.” It then described Foote’s experiment and her findings.

I knew just enough about the history of climate science,” said Sorenson, who published his discovery in the journal AAPG Search and Discovery. “I recognized that it was something that had been missed by historians and I felt she deserved recognition.”

The scientist Joseph Fourier discovered the greenhouse effect in the 1820s but Foote and later Tyndall connected it to carbon dioxide.

John Perlin, science historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara, argues Tyndall knew about Foote’s work and did not credit her, saying: “I would like to see her known as the mother of global warming and climate change.”

Eunice, a short film about Eunice Foote, was made in 2018.

Upcoming Book: Content Law Enquire