Nanna Svartz was a specialist of internal medicine and she was also the first female professor in Sweden to be appointed to a public post. She further developed the Pharmacia produced medicine called Salazopyrin, which is a combination of sulfa and acetylsalicylic acid and was in use for many years.
Nanna Svartz was born in Västerås in 1890. She was the youngest child of Anshelm Svartz, a PhD and an assistant teacher of Latin at Västerås högre allmänna läroverk (advanced general school). Nanna Svartz’ mother was called Anna (née Moxén). Nanna Svartz began attending Västerås högre Elementarläroverk för flickor (advanced elementary school for girls) but before the beginning of the 1908 autumn term she and her family moved to Stockholm so that she could gain her school-leaving certificate there. She completed her education at the Åhlin girls’ school, at which Lydia Wahlström was not only the director of studies but also taught Nanna Svartz history. On 20 May 1910 Nanna Svartz graduated from the Latin section of the school. Nanna Svartz undertook her medical studies at Karolinska Institutet (KI), apart from the autumn term of 1914 when she was registered at Uppsala university. She gained her medical degree on 28 February 1914.
Towards the end of her studies, in 1916, Nanna Svartz joined the Kvinnliga läkares permanenta kommitté (KLPK) (female doctors’ permanent committee) set up by Karolina Widerström, Ada Nilsson, Alma Sundquist, Lilly Paykull, Elin Odencrants and Andrea Andreen. The KLPK sought to fight the tangible obstacles faced by female doctors. Their strategy focused on professionalism and gender-aware meritocracy, with their goal being that ability should outweigh gender in importance. Nanna Svartz, as with the KLPK, knew that this was not always the case and that ability tended to be viewed as a masculine aspect. Nanna Svartz had to deal with this view throughout her life and career, whilst she maintained an approach of strictly egalitarian professionalism. Although she was very successful with her approach she also faced a lot of criticism for it.
Nanna Svartz gained her medical licentiate on 29 May 1918. She subsequently remained loyal to KI during her research and then serving as an employee: from 1927 she held the post of medical doctor and docent, and from 1937 she was a professor. After gaining her medical degree she married Nils Malmberg, a paediatrician. The couple had known each other since their schooldays in Västerås. When Nanna Svartz fell pregnant in 1929 she was so discreet that her pregnancy remained a secret until after she had delivered her child. This decision should be seen as an intentional strategy when held up against the backdrop of her former membership in the KLPK and her continued strict professionalism. This was a method of keeping her private life separate from her public life, in order to manage the intricate interplay between gender, civil status, and academic authority with the aim of living as full a life as possible.
During the early 1900s the milieu at KI was notably masculine and patriarchal. It was a heavily hierarchical structure determined by seniority, academic merits, and graduated levels of loyalty based on friendship, blood ties, or shared internal political interests. This was accompanied by animosity and a good amount of well-known internal conflicts. Lärarkollegiet (the college of teachers) and the Karolinska hospital management were exclusively male and, despite major advances, Nanna Svartz’s position as a colleague was never secure. Without the support of a number of powerful male allies she would never have had a career. Her most prominent supporter was Israel Holmgren, a teacher and a member of one of the most influential medical families at KI.
On 17 December 1937 Nanna Svartz was appointed professor by government decree. This made her the first woman to be appointed to a public post of professor and aroused a lot of attention within the media of the day. Thus the struggle of female academics to gain the right to be appointed to
high-ranking posts without also having to give up the right to have a family can be said to have come to fruition. Nevertheless, difficulties continued and KI remained a bastion of masculinity.
Objections at that time tended to be formulated in terms of doubt with regard to women’s abilities to hold positions of authority and leadership, which Nanna Svartz – like other women and their male supporters – was constantly forced to face up to. Her academic output comprised more than 400 titles and spanned more than 60 years. She published her first medical article when she was a student in 1913, and wrote her last in 1981. She also published the popular-medicine work entitled Mag- och tarmkanalens sjukdomar in 1948. Nanna Svartz continued to undertake research at her laboratory at the Karolinska hospital until 1983, at which point – then aged 93 – she retired.
Further to her research and clinical work at Serafimlasarettet and at the Karolinska hospital Nanna Svartz also ran a private surgery attended by several prominent patients – including the aging Karolina Widerström. Nanna Svartz also treated the Soviet envoy to Stockholm, Aleksandra Kollontaj, the Finnish Marshall Gustaf Mannerheim, and Prime Minister Tage Erlander. Through her patients she received donations which she used for developing the work ongoing at the Konung Gustaf V research institute. She was also a member of the Karolinska hospital management, the Konung Gustaf V’s 80th anniversary fund, as well as the committee for the continued expansion of the Karolinska hospital and for setting up a new rheumatology clinic. In addition to all this, she was a member or honorary member of a great number of medical and scientific organisations, and an honorary doctor of the Rockefeller College and of Åbo university. In 1946 she was awarded the Illis quorum medal of the 8th degree, and in 1960 she received the medal of the 12th degree.
Today a prize is awarded in Nanna Svartz’ memory for outstanding research into rheumatology. The Professor Nanna Svartz foundation fund promotes scientific research in the intra-medical spheres. Meawhile, the auditorium at the Karolinska university hospital bears her name, as does the road near KI named after her. Further, her hometown of Västerås also has a street named after her.
Nanna Svartz died in 1986.