Elsa Robertson was a physiotherapist and physical education teacher. She was a pioneer in physiotherapy for children with cerebral pares (CP).
Elsa Robertson was born on 31 May 1893. She was the eighth child in a sibling group of 14 children. Their father, Sven Magnus Svensson was a restaurateur and prison guard. He had five children in his first marriage. Elsa Robertson’s mother Gustafva Sofia Svensson, née Wallentin, married the widowed Sven Magnus Svensson in 1887 and together they had a further nine children. Their father started his career as a farmer but during the 1880s he purchased one of the Swedish alcohol monopoly restaurants in Växjö and became a restaurateur. Later he also ran Evedal’s restaurant and the theatre restaurant in the same town. He also worked as an extra ordinary prison guard at the prison in Växjö.
Elsa Robertson matriculated from the Växjö grammar school for girls in 1910 and then applied to the newly founded training college for physical education in Lund: Sydsvenska Gymnastikinstitutet. Women had been given the right to train to become physical education teachers and physical education directors at the Gymnastiska centralinstitutet (GCI) in Stockholm in 1864. The Sydsvenska Gymnastikinstitutet had permission to license 30 physiotherapists per year. Elsa Robertson qualified as a physical education director and licenced physiotherapist in 1915. A qualified physical education director was both a physical education teacher and a physiotherapist, and male students with that qualification were also military gymnasts. They even had the right to open and administer their own gymnastic institutes to treat ill people.
After her training, Elsa Robertson travelled out into the world. She travelled to New York in 1917. The journey was the beginning of a number of years abroad during which Elsa Robertson worked at rehabilitating the injured from the first world war. The need of physiotherapists was enormous and Elsa Robertson contributed to training staff all round Europe. Swedish healthcare was well known internationally and it was almost the rule for those who had been trained at GCI and Sydsvenska Gymnastikinstitutet to start their careers abroad. Elsa Robertson worked among other things at spreading Swedish physiotherapy in Austria, France and Germany.
In 1919, Elsa Robertson met Erik Davy Robertson, an engineer. He was born in Rheburg in Germany where his father was working, but he grew up in Gothenburg. Erik Davy, called Hardy, was divorced when he met Elsa Robertson and he had a seven-year-old daughter, Mary Ellen, who grew up in the family. They were married in Växjö on 9 September 1920 and moved the year after to Stockholm. Elsa Robertson continued working as a physiotherapist and gymnastics teacher both in Stockholm and abroad. She also undertook many educational journeys to the USA and to Europe.
In 1932, Elsa Robertson was employed at the Norrmalms fysikaliska institut in Stockholm and she gradually took over the leadership of the institute. At Norrmalm, all forms of physiotherapy were in use and Elsa Robertson became especially interested in physically disabled children. During one of her study trips to Germany, she came in contact with a physiotherapist who worked successfully with so-called spastic children, that is to say, children with cerebral pares (CP) or other functional variations including spasticity. Elsa Robertson recounted herself in an interview in the major daily newspaper Svenska Dagbladet that her special interest in improving the healthcare of the disabled, which was very deficient at that time, had been awoken when one of her best friends had given birth to a boy with CP. Elsa Robertson was able to help him to a better quality of life with specially adapted physiotherapy. She therefore propagated for the early diagnosis of children with CP and for the children to be cared for in their homes instead of in care homes and institutions as was mostly the case at that time. That way they could develop better and acquire the basis for a normal life. This was a point of view that was new in Sweden but Elsa Robertson was inspired by how such healthcare was run in England, Germany and Denmark where they had progressed much further in the dignified and humane care of disabled children. Elsa Robertson became an authority in this field and was later appointed by Medicinalstyrelsen, the Swedish healthcare authority, to train other physiotherapists in the care of children with CP.
In 1934, Elsa Robertson had been elected to the directorate of the Gymnastiska centralinstitutet (GCI), an institution founded in 1813 by ”the father of gymnastics” Per Henrik Ling. The same year, physiotherapy training was separated from training to be a gymnastics teacher or director. A major part of the medical profession, with the orthopaedic professor at Karolinska Institutet (KI), Patrik Haglund, at their head, wanted to eliminate the medical legitimacy and independence that physiotherapy had historically. The requirements for being accepted into physiotherapy training were lowered. From 1934, only the elementary ”normalskola” education was needed to apply while matriculation was required for training to be a gymnastics director. The latter course was two years (four terms) while three terms sufficed to become a physiotherapist. Patrik Haglund had wanted to forbid men to become physiotherapists, which he did not succeed in doing, but as things turned out, this was not necessary since the status of the profession sank when the training became less comprehensive. This led automatically to men making other professional choices.
During the 1940s, Elsa Robertson began to get involved in union activities. As a result of the separation of the profession of gymnast into physiotherapists and gymnastics teachers, the conditions for physiotherapists, mostly women, had become much worse than for gymnastics teachers who were mainly men. This led to the founding of the women physiotherapists’ association: Kvinnliga Legitimerade Sjukgymnasters Riksförbund (KLSR) of which Elsa Robertson was a co-founder in 1943. The struggle for women’s professional lives had many challenges to face. For example, it was not until 1939 that it was made illegal to terminate women’s employment when they married and had children.
KLSR organised a mass resignation by women physiotherapists in 1952, as a protest against the employers’ lack of obedience to the law. Going on strike was illegal for them, being municipally employed. The resignations led to demands being met in 1954 for better working conditions and higher salaries, when the employers had no physiotherapists available. In 1965, Elsa Robertson was made an honorary member of the association, that in 1960 had allowed men to join as well, and then changed its name to Legitimerade Sjukgymnasters Riksförbund (LSR). This association is still active today.
Elsa Robertson retired in 1958 and was distinguished with the Illis quorum medal. She continued working even after her retirement and was active to the last. Elsa Robertson died in 1972 in Hamburg. She is buried with her husband in the Eastern Cemetery in Gothenburg.