Katarina Kraft-Ahnlund was the first woman in Sweden to gain her doctorate in technology.
Katarina Kraft-Ahnlund was born in Danderyd in 1924. She was the daughter of Salomon Kraft and Gudrun Weibull. Her father was a historian and an educator who eventually became the principal of Malmö latin school. In 1948 Katarina Kraft-Ahnlund married Knut Ahnlund, a literary expert and author, and they had two sons together: Mats (later Nathan Shacher) and Måns. Katarina Kraft-Ahnlund’s marriage was dissolved in 1975.
During the 1930s Kungliga Tekniska högskolan (the royal college of technology) had begun teaching engineering physics – internally it was known as section F – and amongst the students who started in 1944 Katarina Kraft-Ahnlund was one of the 12 who signed up for it. An autobiographical account confirms laconically that she, as the first woman in the subject and one of only a few at the whole school, “had to get used to being stared at”. She did well in her studies and five years later, in 1949, she gained her qualification as a civil engineer.
Following her studies Katarina Kraft-Ahnlund was employed by Manne Siegbahn at the Nobel institute for physics where she was put in charge of the high voltage department. The large Cockcroft-Walton accelerator was being built at the institute and Katarina Kraft-Ahnlund worked to complete the machine in collaboration with the physicists Curt Milekowsky and Rolf Pauli. She also began to research on precision measuring of atomic masses and energy levels within light atomic cores. Her research led to work towards a licentiate and in 1953 Katarina Kraft-Ahnlund became the first woman in Sweden to be awarded a licentiate in engineering.
Following this achievement she continued to research and in 1956 she gained her doctorate in nuclear physics with her thesis entitled Transmutations of light nuclei: Experimental determinations of reaction energies, atomic masses and angular distributions. She produced her thesis in the form of a collection of articles, numbering eleven in total, which were published between 1953 and 1956 mainly in Arkiv för fysik, some of which were co-authored with Milekowsky and Pauli. When she gained her doctorate Katarina Kraft-Ahnlund became the first woman in Sweden to gain a doctorate in engineering. The next year she was appointed docent in nuclear physics.
Katarina Kraft-Ahnlund was awarded a Fulbright stipend after completing her doctorate. She also received some support from Atomkommittén (the atomic committee). She and her family made their way to the USA, where she spent a year working at the Rice Institute in Texas and at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). At the latter institution she collaborated with the astrophysicist and future Nobel prize recipient William Fowler, amongst others. Fowler was deeply engaged in ground-breaking research into the formulation of heavy chemical elements within stars.
Following the birth of her second son in 1958 Katarina Kraft-Ahnlund found that working at the institute became too onerous and so she first reduced her work to part-time, but then left the job entirely in 1960. She instead began to work for the lexicographer Sven Lidman and as an editor of the natural sciences and technical sections of the reference book Focus. This paved the way for her future career within the sphere of popular science. In addition to this she also served as scientific consultant for Kooperativa Förbundet (the cooperative association).
Before her career as a popular educator took off Katarina Kraft-Ahnlund held a post at Försvarets forskninganstalt (FOA) (Swedish national defence research institute) from 1963. There she undertook research and investigative work on behalf of civil defence. One of her early tasks was, along with Rolf Björnerstedt, to find out what the long-term effects of a nuclear attack on Sweden would be. Later she studied the nation’s economic preparedness for times of crisis. As a corollary to her post she became a member of the board of Utrikespolitiska Institutet (the Swedish institute for foreign affairs).
Katarina Kraft-Ahnlund left the FOA in 1969 in order to take up a position at Sveriges Radio where she was tasked with building up a science and research news editorial board. She remained at the radio until her death. From 1970 onwards she was head of the ‘vetenskapsradio’ (science radio) and from 1977 onwards she was the programme producer and editor. By the mid-1970s she also began to make her own radio contributions and over the years she became the very familiar voice of the programme Vetandets värld.
Katarina Kraft-Ahnlund died in 1986, aged 61.