Advancing Epigenetics Towards Systems Biology

Agnes Sjöberg

Harnessing pet passions

Name: Agnes Sjöberg
Nationality: Finnish
Lived: 1888-1964
Fields: Veterinary science
Claim to fame: Europe’s first female veterinary surgeon

The Finn Agnes Sjöberg (1888-1964) has the distinction of being Europe’s first female veterinary surgeon, an achievement which took her many long years of struggle against instinctive prejudice in this male-dominated field.

Straying from the flock

Born in 1888, Agnes Sjöberg was the fifth child of Johan Bernhard and Karin Sjöberg. She grew up in scenic Kauhajoki, a small and sparsely populated town in western Finland.
Karin complained that Agnes was a “strange child” – and compared with the expectations of how “good girls” were supposed to behave, she was. From the age of four, her mother would have to dress her earlier than her siblings to enable her to go out on the farm with her father.
In the 1890s, her family established a school of animal husbandry in their estate’s main building and little Agnes sat among the students and listened. At the age of ten, she attended anatomy classes and studied the organs of slaughtered calves. This marked the birth of her fascination with the animal world.

Dreams on ice

Agnes asked the teacher whether a girl could become a veterinary surgeon and he told her that it was an impossible idea. When she heard this, she rushed into the ice house, sat on a block of ice and wept bitterly. Despite this discouragement, she resolved not to put her dream on ice and to become a vet when she grew up.
This steely determination and vigour were to drive and motivate her throughout her life to surmount the obstacles that stood in the way of her dream. In order to gain an education and pursue a career as a veterinary surgeon, she had to overcome the objections of her parents, travel abroad, scrimp and save, and deal with the prejudices of the faculty and colleagues. On top of all that, she raised her two sons alone following the break-up of her short-lived marriage.

Galloping towards success

As a child, Agnes Sjöberg attended the Swedish-language girls’ school in Vaasa on the west coast of Finland. When she expressed a desire to continue learning, her father objected on the grounds that when she got married she would not need an education to look after her husband and family. Instead, she was forced to go to a sort of finishing school to teach her how to manage a household. Only after finishing her studies there and having taken care of her family‘s household for three years, did her father let her enter upper secondary school.
In 1911, Agnes completed her matriculation examination as a private student at a Swedish-language co-educational school in Kuopio, eastern Finland. Meanwhile, she went to work in Pori on the west coast of Finland for a vet called Engdahl – who later admitted that he had only taken her on for a joke.
But Agnes was to have the last laugh: Engdahl was so impressed by her that he wrote to a good friend at Zurich University to recommend that she be admitted there. However, Finland was part of the Russian empire at the time and Switzerland had imposed restrictions on travel from there in a bid to prevent Russian Nihilists from entering its territory.

Opening the stable door

Instead, that same year she moved to Dresden in Germany in the hope of finding a university place there. The confused rector of the city’s College of Veterinary Medicine consented to admitting Agnes as a “test case”. She became the first female student at the school, among 300 male students: “After all, a female veterinary surgeon is well suited to handle small domestic animals,” the rector reasoned. However, Agnes preferred horses.
The following year, in 1912, Agnes transferred to the Veterinary College in Berlin. The professors there recognised her talent and she was praised for her scientific thinking. Nevertheless, her research was published in her supervisor’s name. Despite her family’s initial reservations about her further education, it was only with their financial support that she was able to travel abroad to pursue her dreams. However, she struggled to make ends meet, and even went hungry on occasions, particularly during World War I.

Horse-powered reputation

During the war, Agnes worked at an animal clinic in Berlin and on her doctoral thesis. The subject of her dissertation was equine ophthalmology and was approved by the University of Leipzig in 1918.
After the war, Agnes returned to Finland to pursue a career as a municipal veterinary surgeon in western Finland. In general, the farmers appreciated her skill and care, but her male colleagues were often hostile. She was even obliged to leave the Association of Veterinarians. Attitudes towards her began to change in 1921 when she became the first vet to artificially inseminate a horse.
In 1938, she started her own practice in Seinäjoki, western Finland, which she was to run until 1955. She also made study and research trips abroad. In 1923, she toured faculties of veterinary science in the USA and the UK. In 1925, she spent 18 months in Vienna studying parasites.

Scientific achievements

Despite attempts by her male peers to lock the stable door after the horse had bolted, Agnes Sjöberg has the distinction of being Europe’s first female veterinary surgeon. She was also the first vet to artificially inseminate a horse. The obstacles which stood in the way of this “country” girl achieving her childhood dreams of becoming an animal doctor were formidable. But with perseverance and determination, she overcame them.