Birgitta Forsman was a theoretical scientist, a docent in ethical research, a librarian, an author, a polemicist, and an animal rights activist. She brought animal testing to the attention of the public in Sweden and wrote the first doctoral thesis within the humanities which took a critical view of animal testing and she was a leading figure in the formation of modern research ethics.
Inga-Maj Birgitta Forsman was born in Värnamo, Jönköping county in 1943. She was the daughter of Hildur Vilhemina, née Johansson, and Johan Malkolm Johansson, an agriculturalist at Espåkra farm in Lökaryd, Rydaholm. She had two elder siblings named Lars and Iréne, as well as two half-brothers on her father’s side of the family, named Gunnar and Sigvard. Birgitta Forsman attended Rydaholm school and then Alvesta realskola and Värnamo läroverk. Following her father’s death the family moved to Värnamo and it was there that Birgitta Forsman matriculated.
In 1964 she began to read philsophy at Gothenburg university. In the spring of 1969 Birgitta Forsman and fellow student Ingrid Atlestam were part of a group at Statens biblioteksskola (library school) in Solna which set up the radical left career association called Bibliotek i Samhälle (BiS). The association’s jubilee publication from 2009 contains her explanation that: “What drew me to this type of association was protecting the freedom of expression”. At Lund art gallery and in Gothenburg certain exhibitions had caused trouble. The Lund controversy concerned a poster called Haschflickan (as it later became known) which was part of the exhibition entitled Underground. The establishment felt that artistic freedom had taken excessive liberties here which resulted in the exhibition being cancelled and the resignation of the head of the gallery. These events upset Birgitta Forsman and the other members of BiS.
Birgitta Forsman, when in her role as moderator of panels and seminars, would wear round spectacles, wore her long hair loose and was casually dressed in a manner which went against the conventional expectations of what a librarian should look like. Her 1969 Bachelor’s dissertation in the subject history of ideas, which focused on the pioneering librarian Valfrid Palmgren, was reviewed in the association journal, entitled Bibliotek i Samhälle. Her dissertation was subsequently published as an article in 1986. Birgitta Forsman was appointed to Gothenburg municipal library (now known as Stadsbiblioteket Göteborg), then appointed chief librarian at Mölndals Stadsbibliotek, and subsequently at Sjömansbiblioteket at Rosenhill, Hisinge. She married Anders Forsman, a physician who later became a professor in forensic psychiatry at Sahlgrenska hospital. Although they subsequently divorced they remained friends for the rest of their lives.
Birgitta Forsman, under her professional title of ʻkulturarbetare’ (cultural worker), initiated a public presence during the 1970s by having polemical articles published in the Göteborgs-Posten and Göteborgs Handels- och Sjöfarts-Tidning newspapers. Having read Ivar Lo-Johansson’s short story entitled “Vivisektion” in Nunnan i Vadstena, published in 1976, Birgitta Forsman embarked on a lifelong campaign in support of the ethical treatment of animals, particularly where animal testing was involved. Alongside her library duties she was also an active member of the editorial board of the youth magazine called Djurfront and she served as chair of the Gothenburg section of Nordiska Samfundet mot Plågsamma djurförsök (nowadays known as Djurens rätt, Animals’ rights) and also as deputy chair of its central agency as part of a powerful well-known duo along with Birgitta Carlsson.
Birgitta Forsman, as an association member and activist, requested access to applications made to the newly established animal testing ethical agencies and applied philosophical-academic specifications while scrutinising them. She found that many applications were, as she reported to Göteborgs-Posten on 22 April 1981, “alarmingly sloppy and incomplete in their submissions”. She highlighted which kinds of animals were used in testing, how many were involved, and what they had been used for. This was brand new. It was not long before discussion arose, appearing on the front pages and cultural pages of the newspapers, representing some of the few major public engagements with animal testing during the 1900s. Göteborgs-Posten along with the Göteborgs-Tidningen newspaper published a series of articles, the Aftonbladet newspaper dedicated a front page to the subject, followed by annual updates on Försöksdjurens dag (animal testing day) on 24 April.
Birgitta Forsman started and edited a pamphlet series entitled Brutus which engaged with opposition to animal testing in a philosophical and humorous manner which included Ingegerd Erlandsson’s cartoons. The aim was to connect with the “average person”, generate general discussion and engage researchers. Those who contributed to the polemics of the 1980s on this subject included the animal rights activist and author Ulf Löfgren, the Dagens Nyheter newspaper columnist Eva Moberg, the Göteborgs-Posten journalist Allan Fredriksson, the journalist for Svenska Dagbladet newspaper Ingrid Olausson, Kim Erlandson of Aftonbladet, as well as the authors Roger Fjellström, Lars Gustafsson, Mona Kalin, and PC Jersild.
Kim Erlandson presented Birgitta Forsman and Birgitta Carlsson in Aftonbladet on 14 August 1983 – in an admiring manner which was typical of the era – describing them as: “academics who couldn’t care less about civilian careers”. Birgitta Forsman may have taken this as a challenge to do precisely the opposite as her activities came to form a clear example of successful cross-pollinating of roots-based activism with science. Animal-testing statistics were published in the Läkartidningen journal in 1981, they were used in academic scientific dissertations in 1983, and they were followed up by publications for Forskningsrådnämnden (research council agency) as well as articles on animals in the humanities in the Tvärsnitt and Vår lösen publications. In 1992 Birgitta Forsman defended her thesis entitled Djurförsök, forskningsetik, politik, epistemologi, en vetenskapsteoretisk kontextualisering, presented at the department of theoretical science at Gothenburg university. Her study revealed that the criticism directed against animal testing was more evidence-based than was usually understood and that there had never been any mapping of what the significance of animal testing methodology was. Her thesis was the first ever to be written in Swedish in the humanities on animal ethics and animal testing.
Birgitta Forsman served, from 1986 to 1992, as chair of Nordiska samfundets stiftelse för ventenskaplig forskning utan djurförsök (now Forska utan djurförsök), which had been founded in 1964 by Ellen Börtz and Johan Börtz. Her efforts regarding research conferences and the distribution of methods of non-animal testing research innovations raised her profile as an expert of animal ethics and research ethics. Birgitta Forsman was appointed member of Centrala försöksdjursnämnden (central animal testing agency), sat on its ethics committee and was chair of the development committee. She served as expert in public investigations and was appointed research ethics expert in Vetenskapsrådets expertgrupp on issues of impropriety in research. She continued to use the media to argue that the majority of animal testing practices were indefensible and that animal testing methodology required historical evaluation.
Birgitta Forsman became a leading figure within research ethics. She released a large number of publications and books on the subject, both as research and as teaching material, including Forskningsetik, en introduktion in 1997 and Forskares frihet, om makt och moral in 2004. The review, which appeared in Svenska Dagbladet on 19 February 2002, of her book Vetenskap och moral - in which Birgitta Formsan interviewed twenty-two emeritus professors at length, including Birgitta Odén and Anna Christensen- describes her work as having “placed research ethics on the map”, “having provided an important service to the main figures of research within every research area”, as well as having “led to a demythologising of the research sphere”.
In her role as university lecturer Birgitta Forsman taught social scientists, humanists and natural scientists. One of her ambitions was to create a bridge between the philosophical and scientific divide that existed between the humanities and natural sciences, and to bring awareness to the fact that all research involves social, political, and ethical elements. Birgitta Forsman often prefaced her arguments with a literary quotation, a realistic example, a celebrated individual’s expression positioned against less celebrated practises. She despaired of insubstantial and unclear formulations which she dismantled with clarity and humour. She distinguished herself within the world of philosophy through her intellectually down to earth stance. Birgitta Forsman treated non-human animals rationally: she was not interested in being friends with animals or liking animals, animal testing was simply a matter of ethics and justice.
As the animal rights movement expanded Birgitta Forsman criticised its adoption of anti-intellectualism. She simultaneously distanced herself from society’s judgemental dismissal of critics of animal oppressors as less well-read individuals. Her loyalty lay with ethics and logic, the championing of the subject in open discussion where the primary role of academic philosophers was to contribute clarity. The Humanisterna association gave Birgitta Forsman a new stimulating environment for discussion of complicated ethical issues. This was an environment which suited her view of herself as “oppositional”. The fact that she was not appointed professor following her docentship at Enheten för medicinsk etik (unit for medical ethics) at Lund university generated a lot of consternation at the time.
As an independent author Birgitta Forsman gave lectures and participated in polemical discussions at universities, libraries and study groups. The subjects she covered included gene technology and animals, the role of philosophy within society, the value of the concept of human worth, the roles of religion versus philosophy within the sphere of ethical guidance; Darwin and social Darwinism. She wrote columns for the Forskning och Framsteg journal and on several occasions she made contributions to the Sveriges Radio programme Filosofiska rummet with material from her books. In 2009, based on her work entitled Arvet från Darwin she discussed the modern relationship to the theory of evolution. Was it to be abused as a norm or to be accepted and thus enable counteractions to its negative consquences? In her book Gudlös etik, published in 2011, she wrote polemically against prioritising Christian ethics and highlighted the detrimental impacts of religion through history and into modern times.
Birgitta Forsman’s life’s work provided a contribution to society with regard to animal testing and research methods. In 2019 the type of independent authority she had been championing for decades was introduced, namely a central authority to investigate impropriety within research, known as Nämnden för prövning av oredlighet i forskning, Npof (board for the examination of misconduct in research).
Birgitta Forsman left this life in September 2018 in accordance with a long-held ethical stance. She is buried at the memorial garden in Gamla kyrkogården (the old cemetery) in Malmö.