Signe Ramberg was the first professional woman entomologist in Sweden. As an extremely industrious preparator at Naturhistoriska riksmuseet in Stockholm for several decades, she played an impressively great role that is difficult to assess in the development of the museum’s collection of insects.
Signe Ramberg was born in Stockholm in 1875. Her mother Jenny, née Eriksson, was a Stockholmer while her father Alfred was an accountant who had moved there from Jönköping. The family lived at Norrtullsgatan and later at Vanadisvägen in Vasastan. Signe Ramberg had an older sister, Agnes, and two younger brothers, Gunnar and Harald. The family also had servants. Not much is known about her growing-up.
She married her father’s cousin Nils Konrad Ramberg in 1900. He was an agronomist from Jönköping. A year later they had a son who died in infancy. The family lived and farmed for a short time on a farm at Sorunda in the county of Södermanland. After a couple of years, the couple divorced and Signe Ramberg moved back to her parents in Stockholm. Her divorced husband emigrated to the USA, studied to be an architect and started a new family, but returned to Sweden before he died in 1931.
At the beginning of 1903, Signe Ramberg applied for a job in the entomology section of the Naturhistoriska riksmuseet and assured them that she had “always been unusually interested in and a collector of insects and flowers”. She got the job, and in the yearbook Kungl. Vetenskapsakademiens Årsbok it is recounted how she already her first year there had prepared great numbers of insects that had been sent to the museum.
The enormous diligence with which Signe Ramberg worked can be followed in the yearbooks of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. There it is evident that she dry-prepared (mostly by sticking pins in the objects) and labelled the majority of all the insects that arrived at the museum, not least from important expeditions and as donations, and it does not seem at all unusual that she prepared around 10,000 items per year, sometimes as many as 20,000. In due course, she was given other assignments without seeming to have cut down in the slightest on the great numbers of specimens she prepared. She bound the section’s correspondence, took care of the wet insect collections in ethanol and made lists of species for sections of the museum’s collections, and so on. With her section head, Professor Yngve Sjöstedt, she wrote catalogues over all the known species in the world in the insect groups on which he was expert, for example grasshoppers and dragonflies. She was also out in the field and collected insects herself, but probably not in any great number. When she collected nocturnal dragonflies on the Baltic island of Öland in 1907 for example, that was not mentioned particularly in the yearbook.
The permanent staff at the entomology section consisted during most of Signe Ramberg’s working life there of herself, the professor who was the chief and an assistant who stood between them in the hierarchy A scientific illustrator was sometimes hired and there was also a janitor. Most of the time, there were also temporary employees working with the insect collections, either with salaries from extra grants or else as unpaid amateur entomologists. It is difficult to find graphic descriptions of everyday life at the section, but without a doubt, Signe Ramberg played a very important role for the productive work environment and the great number of visiting guest scientists and amateur entomologists. In 1916 she was elected a member of the Entomological Society in Stockholm, where women were in the minority but not completely absent.
Signe Ramberg has often been put forward in the oral tradition at the museum as a legend of industriousness, a careful and dutiful museum official, and it is first now in the 2010s that it has been acknowledged that she was also the first professional woman entomologist in the country. Even at scientific institutions there were of course women employees with secretarial functions and the like, but the position as “woman preparator”, as the post was called in the state salary lists, meant above all concrete work with museum objects, both the older specimens and the new catches. This was perhaps for the most part compatible with traditional ideas on women’s aptitude for fiddly finger work. However, Signe Ramberg also showed an aptitude for recognising and sorting the various insect groups, and also for handling and acquiring an overview of the long lists of Latin names directly linked to a well-developed sense of the biological diversity. This capacity, which overqualified her for mere routine work, was recognised by Yngve Sjöstedt in Kungl. Vetenskapsakademiens Årsbok in 1932: “Particularly valuable work has been /…/ carried out by Mrs RAMBERG through the sorting of prepared collections, an otherwise to a great degree time-consuming job, that in this way has been spared the superintendent and assistant. It has been made possible through the interest and capacity to learn scientifically the basic characteristics of the collections being handled, besides doing the sheer mechanical work.” It is possible to consider that it is not at all odd for an interested person to know a good deal about something one has been working with for decades, but it was perhaps not at all self-evident, and perhaps particularly for a woman without any higher education, to receive a professor’s and superior’s spontaneous protestation of precisely that.
Signe Ramberg worked at the museum until she was permitted to retire with a pension in 1935, just before her sixtieth birthday. Her life as a pensioner has left extremely few traces. She died at the age of 87 in Stockholm in 1963. She was buried in the Northern Cemetery in Solna.