Eva von Bahr-Bergius was the first female docent in the field of physics in Sweden.
Eva von Bahr-Bergius was born in 1874. She grew up in an upper-class family. When her father, Carl von Bahr, was appointed chief district judge in Uppsala the whole family moved there. She initially trained to become a school cooking teacher at Fackskolan för huslig ekonomi (“trades school for home economics”) in Uppsala in order to please her mother, Elisabeth von Bahr, who was one of the founders of the school and was very active in the suffrage movement. When there was a lack of teachers at the school, Eva von Bahr-Bergius taught the theoretical subjects at Fackskolan and as compensation for her familial loyalty she sought permission to see out her final year of training at Askov Højskole in Vejen, Denmark. There she took classes in physics, philosophy, and mathematics, and realised that she needed to gain her school-leaving certificate and begin studying at university. It was also at Askov Højskole that Eva von Bahr-Bergius’ love for the pedagogical engagement of adult education began.
Eva von Bahr-Bergius saw her plans through and in 1908 she obtained her doctorate with a dissertation on the effects of pressure on the gaseous absorption of infrared rays. That same year she was appointed docent in physics, making her the first woman to hold this post in Sweden. The outcome of her research expanded the understanding of the significance of the atmosphere with regard to global warming. Although her dissertation gained international acclaim it did not enable her to continue her research at Uppsala. She spent a few years teaching and was encouraged to expose the injustice of women being prevented from becoming professors by seeking a position as professor at Chalmers tekniska läroanstalt (now Chalmers University of Technology). Despite the experts highlighting that she was the best-qualified applicant, she only made it into second place on the short list, as it was inconceivable at the time that a woman could be appointed. From 1910 onwards she was only allowed to teach as a substitute teacher at Uppsala University (it was not until 1925 that women were allowed to be appointed to fulltime posts at Swedish universities).
Thus, Swedish female researchers had to look abroad for further employment options. Marie Curie in Paris accepted female researchers. Eva von Bahr-Bergius considered this option but en route to Paris in 1912 she happened to stop in at Berlin University where her dissertation was well known and she received a warm reception. Although female researchers were not accepted in Berlin either, Professor Max Planck had made an exception with regard to the Austrian Lise Meitner, who became a close friend of Eva von Bahr-Bergius’. Professor Planck and Professor Heinrich Rubens at the Institute of Experimental Physics made another exception once they realised the extent of Eva von Bahr-Bergius’s abilities. Her time as a researcher in Berlin was brief but resulted in research results showing that the absorption spectrum of steam is not continuous, which supported Max Planck’s quantum theory. Nine years later, when Niels Bohr opened his Nobel lecture on the development of modern nuclear physics, he only mentioned the achievements of a single Swedish researcher: “Eva von Bahr-Bergius’ fine results”.
Eva von Bahr-Bergius spent the spring of 1914 in Uppsala and remotely participated in projects. Her intention was to continue her work in Berlin in the autumn, but the outbreak of the First World War changed the circumstances. The majority of the physics researchers at the Institute of Experimental Physics in Berlin were sent to the front as x-ray experts. Her stance in support of the military entente also made it impossible for her to return to Berlin University. Her position as docent at Uppsala was at the same time being held by a substitute who was dependent on it for an income and she had no desire to return there.
Following the death of her parents Eva von Bahr-Bergius became financially independent through her inheritance. She took a job as a teacher of mathematics, physics, and chemistry at Brunnsvik folkhögskola (adult education college) and this led to a change of career. Determined to devote herself to Brunnsvik and teaching she had a house built in the area. She never managed to teach the author and poet Dan Andersson mathematics, but he became her close friend. In 1917 Eva von Bahr-Bergius married Niklas Bergius, a charismatic teacher, author and a Catholic. When Landsorganisationen (LO, the Swedish Trade Union Confederation) took over the running of Brunnsvik högskola she and her husband decided to end their collaboration with the institution. Eva von Bahr-Bergius donated her house to the school as a departing gift.
Although Eva von Bahr-Bergius had been a convinced atheist in her youth, it was during a visit to Denmark in 1918 that she and Niklas Bergius both visited a local Catholic church. This experience led to her full conversion to the Catholic faith in 1933, the same year that she published a book entitled Min väg tillbaka till kristendom, followed by Efterskrift, 1934. In order to live close to the Catholic congregation in Gothenburg Eva von Bahr-Bergius and her husband moved to Kungälv towards the end of the 1920s. There Eva von Bahr-Bergius became involved in plans to set up a Nordic adult education college.
When Germany annexed Austria in 1938 Eva von Bahr-Bergius realised that her Austrian friend Lise Meitner would be in danger due to her Jewish ancestry. She successfully mobilised a number of people who ensured that Lise Meitner obtained a travel permit for Sweden in August 1938, partially economically supported the Nobel foundation. It was during a visit to the Bahr-Bergius and Bergius family that Lise Meitner and her nephew Otto Robert Frisch on Christmas Eve 1938 came up with their theory on nuclear fission.
During the Second World War Eva von Bahr-Bergius was actively involved in aid work for Finland and Norway. When her husband died in 1947 she donated the villa, which the couple had built, to Nordiska folkhögskolan (the Nordic adult education college) in Kungälv, which had been founded the same year. Eva von Bahr-Bergius moved to Uppsala, where she mainly devoted herself to the Catholic congregation there.
Eva von Bahr-Bergius died in Uppsala in 1962. She is buried at the Catholic cemetery in Stockholm.