Lis Asklund was one of the first hospital almoners in Sweden who mainly advised on sexual health and abortion issues. She also worked as a presenter on both radio and TV and was for instance in charge of the radio programme called Människor emellan.
Lis Asklund was born in 1913. She was a member of the noble Lagercrantz family. Her father, a former naval officer, ran a peat factory in the Falköping area in the 1910s, but in 1926 he became a director of Stockholm county’s fire insurance company and later a director of a savings bank. Her mother Agnes was a Hamilton by birth. Her parents had five children together, one of which grew up to be the author Olof Lagercrantz. Lis Asklund has described her childhood as glum. Her father was strict and very serious. Her mother suffered from recurring depression, and in the 1930s this led to fulltime hospitalisation. Lis Asklund, as the eldest stay-at-home child, became responsible for most household matters, including for her younger siblings. She was considered to be the clever and practical member of the family. After moving to Stockholm she gained her school-leaving certificate at the Wallin school, earning good marks. Her father remarried and had yet another three children, of which Arvid Lagercrantz became particularly close to Lis Asklund.
Lis Asklund’s father ensured that his daughters had equal career training options to his sons. She vacillated between social work and healthcare and from 1933 to 1936 she trained as a nurse with the Red Cross. She viewed the accommodation centre for the school at Sabbatsberg hospital as a cross between a “convent and a military institution”. She was subsequently invited by Svensk Sjuksköterskeförening (Swedish Nurses’ Association) to attend a one-year international continuation course with the Florence Nightingale International Foundation in London. There she studied sociology, socio-politics, psychology, ethics, philosophy, and healthcare. The training included practical experience, which in Lis Asklund’s case meant looking after long-term patients who were cared for at home in the East End of London. This was the first time she had ever been exposed to this extent of poverty.
Once Lis Asklund had returned home in 1938 she was appointed one of at the time only two hospital almoner positions in Sweden and she began working first at St. Göran’s and then Åsö hospitals. This role quickly developed and several new posts were soon set up. Lis Asklund also met the author Erik Asklund in 1938 and they married in 1940. Their social circle comprised several authors and artists, such as Ivar Lo-Johansson, Nils Ferlin, Gunnar Ekelöf, Stig Åsberg, and Tora Dahl, who became an important friend of Lis Asklund.
In 1940 Lis Asklund was approached by Elise Ottesen Jensen who asked her to set up a welfare office at the Riksförbund för sexuell upplysning (RFSU, Swedish Association for Sexuality Education) aimed at women seeking abortions. This was an unpaid evening job that Lis Asklund took on alongside her day job as hospital almoner. Since 1938 extremely strict abortion laws had been in place in Sweden. Her work focused on getting women to avoid having illegal abortions performed by quack doctors which placed the women’s lives at risk. Lis Asklund served as an expert for the census enquiry’s commission on abortion and also subsequently in the 1950 abortion enquiry. She campaigned for a relaxation of the abortion laws. In 1942 she and a colleague were invited to establish the Stockholm city advice centre on sexual matters, once again to be run as a evening job, where women seeking abortions could be received.
These efforts were contested by Christians and several gynaecologists refused to perform the very few abortions which the office managed to gain permission for from the Medical Board. However, the remit of the advisory office rapidly expanded and came to include more posts. Contraception advice and information on cohabitation were also provided. In 1946 a new law was introduced which allowed abortion on socio-medical grounds, and this led to an increase in opportunities for legal abortion. Subsequently about half of those seeking abortion had their requests approved. It was not until 1975 that abortion became a matter of free choice up to the 18th week of pregnancy. Lis Asklund retired from her post as almoner in 1949 and then worked part-time as the first welfare officer at the advice office. She and Erik Asklund had had a daughter, named Malin, in 1946. Their son, Jonas, was born in 1951.
In 1956 Lis Asklund was invited to lead a “listeners’ letters” radio programme which came to be called Människor emellan and aired weekly all year round, except for during the summer months. Lis Asklund worked on the radio until 1968. In the programme she answered written listener questions about social and mainly personal problems. 80 percent of the letters were written by women and approximately 100 letter were received each week. The programme had a sizable following, with each episode averaging an audience of 700,000 listeners.
Whilst working on Människor emellan Lis Asklund also worked on other radio programmes. She visited policlinics, for example, to investigate the long waiting times that people were subjected to there. This resulted in the introduction of set appointments. Her 1959 report on the Eugeniahem in Stockholm, which was a central institution for severely handicapped children from all over the country, had a major impact. Her report revealed the harsh Christian discipline that was meted out with mandatory church attendance and punishment through enforced bed rest for small misdemeanours. Initially Lis Asklund had the royal household, the parliament, three national boards and the board of the Eugeniahem against her revelatory programmes and she was pressured to stop making them. In 1961, however, her findings were confirmed by an enquiry. Many parents and children were grateful for her revelations and the home was closed down during the 1960s. In 1965 Lis Asklund helped to set up and participated in the national Röda Fjäder fundraiser on TV. The fundraiser enabled the building of 300 homes adapted to the needs of handicapped people.
Lis Asklund also wrote books, including a book for parents looking to adopt, entitled Som vårt eget…, and several books co-authored with Torsten Wickbom on sex education and living together aimed at school teenagers, such as Brytningstid, Vägen till mognad, and Vad är det som hander. These youth books appeared in conjunction with school radio programmes on sex education, which she made, again with Torsten Wickbom, once sex education at school had become mandatory. Once again she was subject to opposition from the church and from Lewi Pethrus, leader of the Swedish Pentecostal Movement. These programmes also gained international attention. Lis Asklund was herself critical of the so-called “sex radicals” of the 1960s (Kristina Ahlmark Michanek, Joachim Israel, Hans Nestius, Barbro Backberger and Maj-Briht Bergström-Walan). She believed that they isolated sex as something extraordinary which lay beyond the sphere of cohabitation. She felt they recklessly promoted sexual techniques and pornography without considerations of tenderness and love. They in turn viewed Lis Asklund and Torsten Wickbom as reactionary. In a different field, her book Dom sitter och dom ligger, 1967, is based on letters from pensioners living in elderly care homes and reveals the lack of contact and stimulation in the care they received. She released her book Samtal är arbete in 1981 which was directed at staff treating institutionalised patients and highlights these patients’ need for human contact.
In 1968 Lis Asklund transferred to TV work and became a reporter for the lifestyle programme Fokus. Her specialism was reporting on social issues and this included reporting on people who had become caught in bureaucratic traps as well as investigations of homes for the elderly, mental health facilities, and prisons. In the 1970s she moved on to do a programme called Gammal i Sverige, together with Gunnar Arvidson. She reported on Sweden’s first sheltered housing, in Örebro, and she did a series of interviews with people who mainly had grown up in rural Norrland, called Människa i närbild, which was later turned into a book. She presented further reports from Norrland in the programme Sveriges Magasin, including an account of the work of a district nurse in Karesuando.
Lis Asklund’s main interest was people and she was happy to man the barricades on behalf of the rights of the “little man” in the face of authoritarian bureaucracy. Her final area of activism was in the sphere of psychiatric care, which she herself had experienced first-hand in her own family. In 1977 she completed her last report before she retired. This was on the Fountain House movement in New York. A Fountain House is a club for former psychiatric patients, where they are given meaningful jobs such as cleaning, shopping and preparing food, running an office, reception work, telephone exchange, and working in second-hand shops, for example. This report led to the opening of a Fontänhus in Stockholm, with Lis Asklund as one of the prime catalysts behind it, and with the Riksförbund för social och mental hälsa (Swedish National Association for Social and Mental Health) as the main employer. The house was formally opened in 1980 and Lis Asklund served as the first chair of the board. Since then several Fontänhus have opened in Sweden. Lis Asklund’s great concern for social issues, combined with her talent for dealing with them and her tireless networking once again delivered results.
Lis Asklund divorced Erik Asklund in 1980 and then spent a few years living with the author Gustaf Rune Eriks. She wrote about her life in her book Uppbrot, which was published in 1986.
Lis Asklund died in Stockholm in 2006. She rests in the memorial garden of The Woodland Cemetery in Stockholm.