Nanna Svartz (1890-1986)

Nanna Svartz was a physician and professor of medicine at Karolinska Institutet and Sweden's first female government employed professor. In 1938 Nanna Svartz was called to take up the chair of professor of medicine at Karolinska Institutet. It was a prestigious post, and her appointment had been prepared through a process of investigations, expert testimonials, debates and sharp accusations. The controversy consisted in Nanna Svartz being a woman.

Photo: Karolinska Institutet

Nanna Svartz was a physician and professor of medicine at Karolinska Institutet and Sweden's first female government employed professor.


Almost half a century after the appointment of Sonya Kowalewski’s appointment as professor of mathematics at the Stockholm University College (Stockholms högskola) in 1889, opponents to women in academia still stridently questioned their fitness for academic positions. At a dramatic assembly of Karolinska Institutet professors in late 1937 a considerable majority of them decided to recommend Nanna Svartz for the post — 20 votes in support out of 24. One of the experts who had weighed in on the matter, the institute’s other professor of medicine, Christian Jacobæus, was staunch supporter of Nanna Svartz candidature. In order not to have to abstain from the vote for reasons of health, he had been concealing a bad heart condition from his colleagues for some time. He hastily took a turn for the worse after the vote, and died the following day.

That her appointment was an exceptional event is borne out by the words of her predecessor on the post, and personal mentor, professor Israel Holmgren, penned for the journal Hertha (1938):

”This signifies, that she becomes the foremost of the two professors of medicine at the Karolinska Institutet, thus the foremost of the 4 professors of general medicine our nation possesses. If I add that the subject of general medicine, taken to be the science of internal diseases and their non-surgical treatment, is the central and in the medical education most important of all the medical specialisations, it should be fully apparent what an important position Nanna Svartz is being asked to fill.”

Her appointment made Nanna Svartz Sweden’s first female professor in government service. It was a breakthrough made possible by an active shifting of traditional boundaries. She had grown up in Västerås, which did not offer girls the secondary education (gymnasium) exam necessary for eligibility for university studies. This led the Svartz family to move to Stockholm in the autumn of 1908, as Nanna Svartz had been accepted into the Åhlinska school, a girls lycée, the director of studies of which was Lydia Wahlström (Sweden’s second female PhD, and a major figure in the women’s rights movement of the day). She had also been an active contributorto the founding of the Society for Academically Trained Women (Akademiska bildade kvinnors förbund) in the Spring of 1904. That society’s first chairperson was Karolina Widerström, Sweden’s first female physician, who had obtained her medical degree at Karolinska Institutet.

After passing her exams in 1910, Nanna Svarts began her medical studies at Karolinska Institutet in the spring of 1911. She obtained her medical degree in 1918 and in January 1919 she took up a position with Professor Israel Holmgen at the Department of Medicine at the Serafimer Hospital in Stockholm. Holmgren shared the aims of the women’s rights movement. His mother Ann-Margret Holmgren was one of the portal figures of the movement. It was a perspective he shared with his brother Gunnar Holmgren, also a medical doctor and professor at Karolinska Institutet, serving as the institute’s Director from 1931-40.

At the Serafimer Hospital Nanna Svatz specialised in the diseases of the digestive tract, as well as joint pathologies. Her research led to a PhD thesis presented in 1927, rewarded with the ”docentur” necessary for a research career. Between 1929 and 1934 she worked as a clinical ”laborator”, a senior research position, at the Serafimer Hospital laboratory, a position providing her with ample scope for original research of her own, and biomedical training. Parallel to her roles as researcher, teacher and administrator, she also maintained a private practice three afternoons of the week. Part of her clientele consisted of celebrated public figures of the day, among others the Finnish President, General Gustav Mannerheim, and the Soviet Ambassador to Stockholm, Alexandra Kollontay.

Administratively she was obliged to shoulder economic responsibility for both the Stockholm departments of medicine (the Serafimer Hospital and the Karolinska University Hospital). She sat on the board of directors of the Serafimer Hospital, and was a member of the Karolinska Hospital building committee. The latter hospital was in the process of being erected as she received her professorial appointment. Through hard work and dedication she dealt with research and teaching, as well as matters of administration and patient care.

She also participated in the reorganisation of clinical research at the Karolinska Hospital, through the creation of the King Gustav V Research Institute in 1948. King Gustav V on his 80th birthday was presented with the proceeds of a public fundraising drive, and chose to donate the money to research on common debilitating afflictions. Half of it was put at the disposal of Sven Gard’s research on a polio vaccine at Karolinska Institutet. The other half was left to Nanna Svartz for research on rheumatic disease. She however opted to use the funds to create the so-called King Gustav V Research Institute at the Karolinska Hospital, intended to put the resources of pre-clinical laboratory research at the disposal for clinical doctors working on patient-focused research. It was a move intended to transform the medical research landscape. Furthermore, in cooperation with the Pharmacia pharmaceutical company, she came to develop the drug salazopyrin (1941), for use in the treatment of rheumatism.

Text: Daniel Normark, Unit for medical history and heritage, Communications and Public Relations Office

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