Women in Science

Scandinavian Women in Science from the 20th Century

I was so lucky to be born in a time period, when it was/is normal for girls both to study and to have academic careers in science. But it has only been like that for quite a short time. Until 1875, women was not allowed admittance to the University of Copenhagen (one of the only, higher educational institutes in Denmark at that time). And although women were allowed to study at the University of Copenhagen, it took further 46 years, before they were allowed to be employed in public positions.

And even then, it was still not easy, as there were expectations that women should be mothers and take care of their families and home. Also, the lack of role models and the general thinking that women should (or could) not be working, and especially not at scientist.

These women often needed to work much harder than men (both to prove their worthiness and to take care of children and house as well) to achieve their goals. They have been so cool!

I am making this series of (Scandinavian), female scientists from the 20th Century to inspire and to help to give their significant contributions a more visible place in history. I have made a drawn portrait of each woman surrounded by examples of events and achievements – and written a text about their life and research. It seems so unfair that so little is written about these women, that made significant contributions to science. They are sorted chronologically and I will constantly update with more women along the way.

Maybe today there are many female scientists in Scandinavia, but this is not the case in many other places of the World, where women have to struggle for their right to go to school, to get education and to work with their passions. Also, it is interesting to remember that it is not that long ago and that we stand on the shoulders of these inspiring, clever and brave pioneers.

I have focused on the Scandinavian women in science from the 20th Century. There are off course also many other inspiring (and forgotten) women (and men!) in other areas of the World and in other time periods, but I have chosen to narrow down the selection in order to get an deeper understanding of these women.

If you have any inputs, corrections of ideas for this series/section, please send me an e-mail on alb@movingscience.dk

Inge Lehmann (1888-1993)

Inge Lehmann GIF by Ann-Louise Bergström

Inge Lehmann was a Danish seismologist and mathematician, who discovered that the Earth has a solid inner core; through her studies and calculations of the spreading of seismologic earthquake waves. She was an amazing woman, but despite her extraordinary talent and great findings, she is almost unknown in Denmark. First after she (in her mid-60ies)  had moved to perform research at Columbia University in US,  she was acknowledged accordingly by the international research community.

She was in many ways a pioneer – having to struggle in a male-dominated academic world, where women were yet not welcome. Although they could attend universities (at least in Denmark), they could not get academic positions. Inge needed to perform much of her research in her spare time and vacations (in contrast to her relative Niels Bohr, who lived in the same period).

She lived to be 104 years (!) and managed to see her theory about the Earth’s inner core be confirmed by computer calculations.

Marie Hammer (1907-2002)

Marie Hammer by Ann-Louise Bergström

(Signe) Marie Hammer (1907-2002) was a Danish zoologist, who – by her extensive collections and studies of microscopic insects named Oribatides and Collemboles – finally confirmed the theory of continental drift, formulated by Alfred Wegner in the early 20th century . The theory of continental drift was extremely controversial at that time, but Marie Hammer discovered the same insect species on five different continents (Europe, North America, South America, Asia and Oceania) and proved that they could not have been spread by water, air, animals nor humans. The only explanation for their dispersed distribution was that the continents had once been together in one great ancient supercontinent; Pangea.

Marie Hammer travelled to an extensive number of countries all over the world (often alone), where she collected samples that she brought home for analysis. She was the only female scientist ever to join the famous, Danish polar explorer Knud Rasmussen, on one of his expeditions to Greenland.

Although she was able to get some (sparse) funding for her travelling activity, she was never offered employment as researcher at any university – even though her extensive contributions were widely acknowledged by the scientific community. Her immensely great work of studying and classifying all the collected species, writing scientific articles and theses, was thus performed at home with her family (husband and four children) around her.

She is surprisingly unknown, searches on the internet do no reveal much about her, although she even wrote a book herself about her adventures (“Forsker I fem verdensdele”). Being a biologist myself, I was very surprised that I – until recently – had never heard of her. I came across her by reading the brilliant book “Kvinden, der samlede verden” by Eva Tind.

References:

  • “Forsker i fem verdensdele”, autobiographic book by Marie Hammer herself, 1981.
  • ”Kvinden, der samlede verden” exofictive book by Eva Tind, 2021.
  • Forskerforum: ”Midernes mor”, https://www.forskerforum.dk/magasinet/2021/342/midernes-mor
  • Kvinfo: ”Markante kvinder i dansk naturvidenskab”, https://kvinfo.dk/markante-kvinder-i-dansk-naturvidenskab/

Ebba Lund (1923-1999)

Ebba Lund (1923-1999) was a Danish, chemical engineer and microbiologist, who gained many scientific achievements, mainly within virology and microbiology, with great impact for both human and veterinary health. In addition, she was a resistance fighter during World War II.

Her maybe most important, scientific finding, was that poliovirus could survive in waste (and sea) water, which was extremely useful information during the devastating polio epidemic in Scandinavia in the 50’ies and 60’ies. She developed methods for both analysis and inactivation of polio virus. In addition, she also made significant contributions within other diseases (toxoplasmosis,  foot and mouth disease and mink plasmacytosis).

As a resistance fighter (when she was young), she organized illegal transports – in the boats of local fishermen – of Jewish people to safety in the neutral Sweden (something my own father, Sven Bergström, also took part of – without any reference to Ebba Lund, whatsoever – by helping and accommodating Jewish refugees in camps in the small town of Mullsjö in Sweden – skal måske ikke med..?).

Ebba Lund achieved her degree as chemical engineer at the DTU (the Technical University of Denmark). After some shorter, academic positions in Denmark, she moved with her husband to Gothenburg in Sweden, where she was employed in a research position at Sahlgrenska sjukuset, which is where she did her important studies in poliovirus. After 12 years in Sweden, she returned to Denmark, where she was employed as head of the virus department the Royal Danish Veterinary and Agricultural School (Danmarks Kgl. Veterinær- og Landbohøjskole). Her position was changed into a professoriate a few years later.

She was very active in developing the field of veterinary medicine in Denmark and gained many achievements and publications. In addition, she was also very engaged in environmental protection, she did organisational work, she wrote books – and she was a single mom of three children.

All in all, she was an amazing woman and a pioneer in many ways. She was only the second, female professor at the Royal Danish Veterinary and Agricultural School. She lived in a time where it was difficult for women to get academic careers (both because of discrimination and expectations to house work), although it had been possible since 1875 for women to get enrolled at the University of Copenhagen.

References: