Stina Stenhagen was a prominent researcher within the field of medical chemistry and chemical ecology. She was the first female professor to be appointed at Gothenburg University.
Stina Stenhagen was the daughter of principal Johan Alfred Ställberg and his wife Anna Emilia. She gained her school-leaving certificate at Högre almänna läroverket in Norrköping in 1936 and the same year she continued her studies at Uppsala University. Three years later, in 1939, she graduated in medicine. She then became employed as an assistant in the medical chemistry department at Uppsala University. Einar Stenhagen, whom she later married, also worked there. Einar Stenhagen became ill with tuberculosis of the lungs in the early 1930s and subsequently decided to devote himself to medical research focused on the chemical composition of tubercular bacteria. For a period during the early 1940s, when Einar Stenhagen suffered a relapse of tuberculosis and could not carry out his own research, it was largely Stina Stenhagen who performed the necessary laboratory work. In 1942 the couple got married and they went on to have three children together.
Their joint scientific work came to be a signature mark of Stina and Einar Stenhagen’s research life. The first task they set themselves was to determine the chemical and physical properties of the fatty acids in tubercular bacteria, especially those that could be related to the specific tissue changes which occur as a result of tuberculosis. The idea was that it could lead to finding a way to defeat the feared illness. Determining the chemical structure of the fatty acids was, however, a complicated task, which required the development of physical-chemical methods of analysis as well as methods to produce synthetic versions of the acids. At the time the understanding of these kinds of complex fatty acids, many of which are of great biological and medical significance, was highly limited. This was also true of existing methods to synthesise them. Stina Stenhagen developed an independent research profile within this field. In 1951 she defended her thesis entitled “Undersökning över optiskt aktiva former av högre fettsyror med förgrenade kolkedjor”. She was awarded top marks and became a docent of medical chemistry. That same year the Stenhagen couple were awarded Svenska Läkaresällskapets jubilee prize in recognition of their studies of the chemical composition of tubercular bacteria.
In the early 1950s Stina Stenhagen herself became infected with tuberculosis with severe consequences for a time. Despite this she continued her academic career and her work in developing methods to synthesise and determine the structures of complex organic compounds, often in collaboration with Einar Stenhagen. In 1952 she was appointed assistant professor of medical chemistry at Medicinska högskolan in Gothenburg. Alongside her research she also taught, and she devoted a lot of time and enthusiasm to her teaching. In 1960 she became an honorary medical doctor at Gothenburg University and in 1963 she was awarded the newly established post of professor of medical chemistry, for both the medical and odontological faculties, at the same university. She thereby became the first female professor appointed at Gothenburg University.
During the 1960s Stina Stenhagen focused on a completely new research field, namely pheromones which function as communication signals between insects as well as between insects and plants. The entomologist Bertil Kullenberg had started studying this form of chemical communication, which plays a decisive role in the propagation of these organisms, at Uppsala University in the early 1950s. He soon began to collaborate with the Stenhagens. An important element of pheromone research was determining the structure of the active chemical compounds. The methods which Stina and Einar Stenhagen had developed, in particular the combination of gas chromatography and mass spectrometry, as well as their advanced work on chemical synthesis, was fundamental to this. Using these methods enabled the separation and the structural identification of the often very small amounts of organic compounds concerned. Their interest in pheromone research was not just about developing a fundamental understanding of these biochemical interactions; in extension of the research there was hope that an alternative to chemical pesticides could be found. Pheromone research thus combined Stina Stenhagen’s great interest in nature with her skill for experimentation as an organic chemist, not only as regards advanced chemical analysis but also in synthesising different organic compounds. During the summer months, research was undertaken at the environmental research centre in Skogsby on Öland, which had been opened in 1963. It was there that Einar and Stina Stenhagen, along with Bertil Kullenberg, built up a pioneering enterprise within the sphere which later came to be known as chemical ecology.
Stina Stenhagen’s scientific interest encompassed a broad range, from medical chemistry to chemical ecology. The Stenhagens were a successful research couple who enjoyed a – for their era – unusually equal work relationship within which Stina Stenhagen developed her own independent career as a researcher.
Stina Stenhagen died in Mölndal in 1973.