Elsa Bolin was a social worker, author and amateur researcher. For her ground-breaking research, she was made an honorary doctor of medicine at Umeå University in 1995. She was also a pioneer when the first women’s shelters were started in Sweden in the 1980s.
Elsa Bolin was born in 1928 and christened Elsa Alfhild Bucht in Tornedalen in northernmost Sweden. She was one of nine siblings. The family lived off a smallish farm and their father’s work as a timberman and forester. They all shared one room and a kitchen for the first years and the children slept two to a bed. The beds served other purposes during the day. The family spoke the minority language Meänkieli at home, but from her first day at school, Elsa Bolin and her siblings had to change to Swedish. As a teenager, she worked as an interpreter for the Finnish refugees who fled over the river during the second world war.
After elementary school, her teacher applied for funding to send her to the grammar school, but failed. She attended the rural domestic science college instead as well as a few folk high school courses. She also worked as an orderly in healthcare and as a gardener. One of the professions she considered was that of teacher, but Elsa Bolin failed to be accepted since she could not sing. In desperation, she wrote to an advisory service on the Radio to ask how she could be accepted on a sociology course, since nobody she knew had ever done that, and she received help. Lambert Sunesson at Radiotjänst noticed “the somewhat wilted but nevertheless viable plant from the North” and organised training for her at Timrå Hemgård, which later led to the Sydsvenska socialinstitutet in Lund (now Socialhögskolan at the University of Lund). After qualifying as a social worker in 1951, she worked for a number of years in social care and as a teacher of among other things social methodology.
In 1952, she married the journalist and editor Alvar Alsterdal. They settled down in Malmö and Lund and had two children, Lotte and Tove Alsterdal. After their divorce in 1963, Elsa Bolin and her daughters moved to Umeå where she was appointed as a lecturer at the recently started college of sociology. In 1967, she married Lars Bolin, head of a bureau in the Swedish Prison and Probation Service. During the following years, she worked as an educator at the Municipal Association and as assistant social director in the Järfälla municipal district.
In 1970, Elsa Bolin was afflicted by cancer. She and some other patients founded the Breast cancer association. Based on their experiences, she and Christina Skogsberg wrote the book Patient in 1981, a study of the patient role, with the aim of showing a healthcare in which the patient is seen as the subject: “She can never – other than when unconscious – be freed from, deprived of or avoid her part of the responsibility for regaining her health, suffering from her illness, or dying her death”.
During the 1980s, Elsa Bolin helped to start one of the first women’s shelters in the country, in Järfälla, and she became the first chairwoman of the association. She wrote Kampen mot kvinnomisshandel in 1984, and it became the first textbook on that subject. Elsa Bolin was also a driving force in starting the national association for women’s and girls’ shelters: Riksorganisationen för kvinnojourer och tjejjourer i Sverige (Roks) in 1984.
The work on Patient led on to what became the work that drew most attention to Elsa Bolin: the study and documentation of women’s knowledge in healthcare and welfare. It was often called “silent knowledge” since it had not been described or documented on paper, but Elsa Bolin chose to call it “silenced knowledge”. Her opinion was that women had been very well able to put words to their knowledge, when anybody listened. In the first book of two: Porträtt utan guldram: sex kvinnor i vården in 1987, she wrote: ”Women’s work, their care-giving and creative attention at home and elsewhere, has been considered too trivial to speak about, let alone study and describe”. During her work on the book, Elsa Bolin followed six women in healthcare, and observed and conversed with them, in a profound study of women’s knowledge, women’s work and women’s views on healthcare.
The book was followed up in 1994 by Porträtt i guldram: elva kvinnor i livets skola, in which, assisted by a research scholarship from a union, she followed women between 50—65 years of age in the union’s professional groups in their daily work, among others cleaners and nannies, cooks and hospital orderlies. She also used private means to study how women had used their personal experiences in their professional lives. For that work, Elsa Bolin was elected to be an honorary doctor of medicine at the University of Umeå in 1995. The University wanted thus to “express its deep recognition of the significance that your work has had for qualitative medical research and for medical research on women”.
Elsa Bolin died in Stockholm in 2009, at 80 years of age. For her ground-breaking research and work for women, she had a street named posthumously after her in Umeå in 2017: Elsa Bolins Gränd. Her ashes rest in Katarina Cemetery.