Marna Nilsdotter was a lay woman doctor in Lund during the 1800s, known as the “Cow woman”.
Marna Nilsdotter was probably given her nickname because her mother Elna Hansdotter did not only treat people but also cows and other animals. The nickname was not derogatory but a way to distinguish between people at a time when many had similar names. Marna Nilsdotter learned her skills from her mother who had in her turn learnt them from her mother Sissa Mårtensdotter. The last was the daughter of Elna Persdotter, who was a doctor of broken bones at the beginning of the 1700s.
Marna Nilsdotter was born in 1782 in rural Gårdstånga in the southern Swedish province of Skåne. She had three siblings. In 1788 the family moved to Lund, where mother Sissa Mårtensdotter opened her practice. Marna Nilsdotter probably began by helping her mother in the practice, and then took it over when her mother died in 1814. Marna Nilsdotter had two children by then, Hans, born in 1807 and Elna, born in 1814. Both are registered as illegitimate in the church records. Elna would later follow in her mother’s footsteps as a lay woman doctor under the name Elna Hansson. Despite Marna Nilsdotter’s being unmarried with two children to support, she was able to buy her own house in 1815. The year after that she married Arvid Ericsson, a stone paver. With him she had four more children.
Marna Nilsdotter continued to look after people’s wounds and fractures until her husband died in 1855. Practically no accounts exist about how she worked, apart from a few occasions when she was denounced by doctors who were irritated by her illegal competition. In 1845, Carl Gustaf Wieselqvist, a district consultant, reported Marna Nilsdotter, her daughter Elna Hansson and a person who had a similar enterprise in the nearby village of Oxie to the County Governor’s Office. In the case of Marna Nilsdotter, the report was referred to the Magistrate in Lund, who called her to an interrogation. Marna Nilsdotter admitted that she treated wounds and broken bones and also stomach complaints, but only by prescribing medicines for external use. The County Governor’s Office was satisfied with that answer and there were no disciplinary consequences despite the law from 1688 banning other persons than correctly trained barbers, barber-surgeons and doctors from medical practice.
The year after, another report was made against Marna Nilsdotter. The 43-year-old farm labourer Nils Larsson had ended up under a wagon that had rolled over on 19 June 1846 and broken his lower right leg. He was transported to the hospital where the wound on his ankle over the fracture was bandaged and a splint was applied. After two days, Nils left the hospital by his own request and went to Marna Nilsdotter instead to receive treatment. According to the doctor’s information in Nils Larsson’s journal, the wound was clean at that time with no sign of infection. This is not surprising since infections in wounds do not usually appear that soon.
After a few days, Nils Larsson felt “a great tightness in his chest” and called a neighbour to come and bleed him, that is, apply a cupping glass to empty out some blood. The day after, on 26 June, the city medical officer was called in, who also bled Nils Larsson but did not examine the wound and broken bone. That may have been because he as a medical specialist did not usually concern himself with wounds and broken bones.
The day after, the city medical officer returned to Nils Larsson’s bedside and found then that Nils Larsson was very feverish and that the wound was greenish-black, a sign of gangrene. The following night, the patient died.
Marna Nilsdotter was prosecuted on 3 July for having caused Nils Larsson’s death and for quackery. In court, she stated that she had bandaged the wound with “Strips of cardboard and put a plaster on the wound and also rubbed the wound with an oil, the ingredients of which she asserts were completely harmless, but she did not want to provide any more information”. Later she admitted that she had used a so-called “mixed oil”. It was also known as “the Cow-woman’s oil”. It was probably the same mixture as later came to be known as “the Lund woman’s oil” which contained chalk ointment and camphor. It could be bought at pharmacies in Skåne as late as the 1960s.
Marna Nilsdotter defended herself by saying that she had successfully treated several patients in the same way. In her opinion, the unfortunate result depended on the unnecessary bleedings that the neighbour and the city medical officer had carried out. She also showed letters from grateful patients who certified that she had helped them when formally schooled medical doctors had failed. The court concluded however that she had contributed in part to Nils Larsson’s death and she was sentenced to pay a heavy fine of 50 dalers. On the other hand, she was not sentenced for quackery. That question was handed over to the County Governor’s Office, which did not however take any further measures.
Marna Nilsdotter took the sentence very badly but continued her practice in Lund until her husband died in 1855, when she moved to Malmö. There she died of cholera in 1859. Like her daughter, she was very highly appreciated in wide circles of the community.