Karin Johannisson was the first woman in Sweden to hold a professorship in intellectual history. She was also a well-known and much read author. Her works include Den mörka kontinenten. Kvinnan, medicinen och fin-de-siècle.
Karin Johannisson was born in Lund in 1944. Her father, Ture Johannisson, worked there as a linguist. The next year he was appointed professor of Nordic languages at Gothenburg högskola (college). Following the family’s move to Gothenburg Karin Johannisson spent most of her school years at that city’s Högre almänna läroverk för flickor (advanced general school for girls). She gained her school-leaving certificate from that school in 1964.
Karin Johannisson's future research interest in 18th century Swedish intellectual history was already apparent during seminars in intellectual history at Gothenburg. She wrote a paper entitled ‘Exegetiska och Philantropiska sällskapet’ (the exegetics and philanthropic society), a subject chosen by Henrik Sandblad. She presented her essay in the autumn of 1966, revealing her interest in mysticism and Swedenborgianism. This was followed up in her 1974 dissertation on animal magnetism in Sweden, entitled Magnetisörernas tid. Den animala magnetismen i Sverige.
In 1966 Karin Johannisson became the first woman in Sweden to be appointed professor in the subject of Swedish intellectual history, a sphere of studies which had previously been heavily male-dominated. Intellectual history was and still is a wide-ranging discipline which developed a broad-spectrum perspective at an early stage. Sten Lindroth, who had been Karin Johannisson’s teacher in the subject at Uppsala, had a notable impact on her research sphere. In her own words – at the time of her installation as professor in 1997 – “By combining skilful theoretical innovation, text interpretations, historical expression, and linguistically aware accounts, intellectual history stands out as one of the classical disciplines of the humanities.”
The series of books Karin Johannisson published from 1990 onwards until her death became very important, not only to intellectual historians at her institution and researchers within other disciplines within the humanities, but also to health-care professionals – nurses and doctors – and their views on health and psychological illnesses. This series of medical history essays also represented a revival of the subject within both medical history and intellectual history. Her most well-known works include Den mörka kontinenten. Kvinnan, medicinen och fin-de-siècle, from 1994, which is an exciting and harrowing portrayal of women and medicine, using material from doctors’ reports, medical science, sexology studies, etiquette books, and diaries. Similarly, her final major study, Den sårade divan. Om psykets estetik (och om Agnes von K, Sigrid H, och Nelly S), from 2015, in which she presented close studies of the writers and artists named in the title, which was based on notions of female madness and how it can be ascribed to and equally used by the female subjects in question, gained a lot of attention.
In a 1988 festschrift Karin Johannisson published what – with hindsight – can be seen as a research programme for this entire series of books. It involved what she called the establishment of cultural illnesses, namely illnesses which were based in a specific ethnic culture. Or, illnesses which had been defined and constructed at a certain time and which vanished as cultural values changed because their definition was no longer culturally relevant – melancholy, hypochondria, nostalgia, neurasthenia, and others. Although these are culturally constructed views of illness this does not mean that the illnesses were not real when they were experienced.
From 1985–1991 Karin Johannisson held a special research post at Medicinska forskningsrådet (medical research council). Her ambition was, alongside comprehensive teaching and supervisorial duties at her home institution, to write the history of suffering and illness, and in particular of cultural illnesses. Over the years she collected extensive material on both doctors and patients from older and more recent periods. She seems to have constantly been on the hunt for new areas to analyse, new diagnoses of illnesses, new material.
Her inspiration for these wide-ranging books on doctors and patients from 1990–1995 mainly came from a group of historians active at the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine in London. She was in close contact with them, and particularly so with the incredibly productive but since deceased Roy Porter. Her main role model and feminist inspiration was Elaine Showalter, a literary specialist, and her 1987 book The female malady: women, madness, and English culture, 1830-1980.
Karin Johannisson was also one of the first to adopt Michel Foucault’s theories on intellectual history. Her books assert – like Foucault – the significance of perception and appearance to a doctor’s diagnosis and treatment. However, she awarded a similar significance to the language and speech used in doctors’ communications with patients. Foucault’s influence and his biopolitics are not only apparent in her medical history books, they can also be seen in the easily accessible piece on quantification within society, Det mätbara samhället. Statistik och samhällsdröm i 1700-talets Europa, from 1988.
As a historian Karin Johannisson was driven by great curiosity and a thirst for knowledge as well as strong empathy for those with illnesses, particularly young girls who suffered from what were viewed as women’s illnesses in their day. Karin Johannisson’s books were popular and she set great store by linguistic expression. She also resisted what could have been viewed as literary ambitions. She gained an extensive following and was keen to contribute to seminars and debates in which she could use her historical perspective in order to illuminate the health problems of our time.
Karin Johannisson died in November 2016. She is buried at Berthåga cemetery in Uppsala.