Advancing Epigenetics Towards Systems Biology

Kristine Bonnevie

A fingerprint on the history of science

Name: Kristine Bonnevie
Nationality: Norwegian
Lived: 1872-1949
Fields: Genetics, marine zoology and cytology
Claim to fame: First female professor in Norway, who made key discoveries in the field of genetics

A forceful character with a strong sense of civic duty and a devotion to science, Norwegian geneticist and zoologist Kristine Bonnevie (1872-1949) filled her life with scientific research and politics. The first woman to be appointed professor in her native country, she published significant works in the fields of human and animal genetics. Outside the laboratory, she was honoured for her humanitarian work during both World Wars.

The call of the wild

Kristine Bonnevie was one of nine children born to Jacob Aall Bonnevie, a prominent teacher and cabinet minister, and his wife Anne Johanne Daae. When Bonnevie was 14, the family relocated from Trondheim (then called Nidaros) to Norway’s capital, Kristiania (now Oslo) where she continued her education at a gymnasium. After graduating in 1892, the budding scientist enrolled at Det Kongelige Frederiks Universitet (now the University of Oslo) to read medicine. She quickly realised that her true interests lay elsewhere – in the animal kingdom – and changed her focus to zoology, specialising in marine life.

An international education

Whilst still an undergraduate, Bonnevie published a study of ascidiae (sea squirts) and hydriodea (worm tubes) specimens collected by the Norwegian North Sea expedition. Continuing her studies abroad, she was taught cytology (the study of cells) by specialists in Switzerland and Germany from 1898-1901. In 1900, she was appointed curator of the university’s Zoological Museum. Throughout this period she continued to work on her PhD thesis on the development of germ cells in parasitic snails. Published in 1906, ‘Studies on the germ cells of Enteroxenos østergreni’ was the first of Bonnevie‘s many contributions to the study of chromosomal structure and function. That same year, she crossed the Atlantic to train at Columbia University in New York, where she focused on sex chromosomes in sea snakes.

Mixing work with pleasure

Her love of nature and fascination with animal life was such that she even devoted her leisure time to their study. Holidaying at biological stations along the Norwegian coast, she claimed that she loved these tours “where work and pleasure are so tightly interwoven that you cannot tell where the one ends and the other begins”. A profi le published in the magazine Folkebladet, when she became a professor, said that “It is only during the holidays that Dr Bonnevie can work on her scientific studies”.

Scientist, politician and humanitarian

In 1911, Bonnevie’s work was recognised and she was the first woman to be appointed as a member of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. The following spring, the Stortinget (Norwegian parliament) gave women access to academic office and Bonnevie was made extraordinary Professor of Zoology. In 1919, she was elevated to ordinary professor. She remained a dedicated lecturer and writer of popular science throughout her career.
She was well liked as a teacher, and gave inspiring lectures. One former student described how she spent hours before a lecture putting dotted lines on the blackboard (invisible to the students) so that, during the lectures, with the help of coloured chalk, organs and structures began to appear.

A human interest story

Although her passion for nature never left her (she remained head of the zoological laboratory until 1938), Bonnevie began to turn her attention to the study of human genetics. In 1912, she launched a large-scale study of heritability, which would lead to a number of important discoveries. To facilitate these studies, in 1916, alongside three other professors, Bonnevie founded the University Institute for Research on Heredity (later Genetics). Her work would lead to advances in our understanding of inherited characteristics.

Mother to all her students

Bonnevie cared about the welfare of her students. She was responsible for setting up homes to accommodate female students and, during World War I, organised food and shelter for students from other parts of the country, even renting land where they could grow potatoes. In 1920, she was rewarded with the Royal Gold Medal of Merit. Similarly devoted in World War II, Bonnevie organised food supplies for the resistance and her students, distributing food packages from her apartment after the university was closed by the Nazis in 1943. For this, she was made a Knight, First Class, of the Order of St Olav in 1946.
Moreover, Bonnevie was interested in promoting the interests of women scientists. In 1920, she was one of the founders of the Norwegian Association of University Women and became its first president. In that capacity she hosted the Third International Conference of the International Federation of University Women in Oslo in 1924.
Bonnevie also held official political office, serving as a representative on the City Council of Kristiania from 1908-1919 and as a deputy in the Stortinget from 1916-1918. Between 1920 and 1924, she was a member of the Norwegian delegation to the first five assemblies of the League of Nations in Geneva.

Scientific achievements

Bonnevie published a number of important studies, some of which had an instant impact and others which were only later acknowledged. In 1908, she published an article describing the structure of chromosomes, but it took 25 years before her interpretation could be proven. Her research led to the naming of a chromosomal disorder found in some females who lack all or part of one X chromosome as Bonnevie-Ulrich syndrome.
From 1912 onwards, Bonnevie focused much of her research on hereditary characteristics, resulting in two ground-breaking studies. One considered the occurrence of dwarfi sm, polydactism (having extra digits on the hands or feet) and multiple births in isolated mountainous and fjord regions. This led to the publication in 1926 of a study showing the genetic predisposition of dizygotic (non-identical) twins. Two years earlier, Bonnevie had published a ground-breaking study of fingerprint patterns, identifying the three basic elements that make up fingerprint patterns and showing that a tendency towards certain pattern types was hereditary.
After her death, the academic Bjørn Føyn gave a eulogy quoting her personal philosophy, saying: “Age and death follow as natural parts of the life of each subject – in the same way as the plants wither at the end of their flowering period. The individual has done its deed, and life is at an end. But if they have ucceeded during their lifetime in arriving at some of the goals of the ethics of Nature, to live according to the best in their characters, then their lives will, without doubt, leave some marks behind among their fellows and relatives." Bonnevie’s life and work left a mark that reached beyond those who knew her.