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 email@example.com
Inge Lehmann (1888-1993)
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)
(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.
- “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/
Herdis von Magnus (1912-1992)
The medical doctor Herdis von Magnus (1912-1992) – pioneer in vaccine research.
The viral disease polio (or poliomyelitis) has caused large and small epidemics in many countries during history, in Europe and USA particularly in the period from the 1930ies to the 1960ies. Poliomyelitis (or paralytic polio) mostly affects children and results in paralysis of the muscles due to nerve cell infection. In the worst cases, the respiratory system is affected, and the patient needs help to breath to survive . Even without breathing problems the disease is very dangerous and can cause lifelong disabilities. In the fall of 1952, extraordinary many children were affected and hospitalized with poliomyelitis in Copenhagen. As ventilators at that time were very rare, many children were ventilated “by hand” by medical students.
Also then there was a race to develop efficient vaccines to combat the disease (as today, with COVID-19). In 1955, this was achieved by the American doctor Jonas Salk. Herdis von Magnus, who at that time was employed as department head at ‘Statens Serum Institut’, had previously been on a stay in Salk’s laboratory in USA (together with her husband, Preben von Magnus). Therefore, the von Magnus couple could quickly develop and produce a Danish version of the polio vaccine at the ‘Statens Serum Institut’. The new vaccine was ready for use only 14 days after the American one was introduced.
The vaccination campaign was a great success in Denmark. In USA, in contrast, problems arose. The production of the vaccine was performed by private companies and one of these companies (“Cutter Laboratories”) was sloppy with the production and safety. This caused one of the worst crises in modern medical history. Due to insufficient inactivation of the virus (the vaccine consisted of live, inactivated polio virus) many children were accidentally infected with polio. Naturally, the vaccine program was paused in the USA – and the launch in many other countries was postponed until the problems were solved.
It was especially thanks to Herdis von Magnus that the vaccination program in Denmark continued without great problems. The safety procedures in Denmark were better than in the USA, which made the Danish vaccine safer than the American one. Herdis von Magnus has a great deal of the credit for the fact that the trust for the Danish vaccination program was sustained; partially because of her work of ensuring development and production of a safe vaccine – and partially because of her partitioning in an effective vaccination campaign. This led to Denmark being the only country for quite some time, that vaccinated against polio. As a result Denmark avoided the large epidemics, that hit many other European countries. Today, the polio vaccine is still a part of the Danish children’s vaccination program.
Klaus Jensen: ”Bekæmpelse af infektionssygdomme – Statens Serum Institut 1902-2002”, https://www.ssi.dk/-/media/arkiv/dk/om-ssi/ssis-historie/jubilaeumsbog.pdf?la=da
Berlingske Tidende, 12. august 1952, ”Om børnelammelsen”, artikel af Herdis von Magnus
Biografisk leksikon, https://biografiskleksikon.lex.dk/Herdis_von_Magnus
Michael Fitzpatrick: ”The Cutter Incident: How America’s First Polio Vaccine Led to at Growing Vaccine Crisis”, J R Soc Med, 2006, Mar: 99(3):156, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1383764/
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. She was also a resistance fighter during World War II.
Her perhaps most significant, 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. She also made important contributions within other diseases (toxoplasmosis, foot and mouth disease and mink plasmacytosis).
As a young resistance fighter, she organized the illegal passage of Jewish people from Denmark to safety in the neutral Sweden, via the boats of local fisherman.
Ebba Lund achieved her degree as chemical engineer at the
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 – all the while she was a single mom of three children.
All in all, Ebba Lund was an amazing woman and a pioneer. 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), and yet she persevered.
- DRs serie: Store, danske videnskabsfolk