Mud, sport and Estonian feminism
Name: Elise Käer-Kingisepp
Fields: Astronomy and astrophysics
Claim to fame: Establishing that the sun is mainly composed of hydrogen
Elise Käer-Kingisepp (1901-1989) was a high-flying academic who established Tartu as a centre of excellence for sports medicine and gained the admiration of her colleagues as her career progressed. While still in her twenties, she founded the Estonian Association of University Women.
She continued to campaign for the advancement of women in science in Estonia throughout her career.
Elise Käer was born into a farming family in the south Estonian village of Metsaküla on 3 October 1901. The family, which now included a second daughter, Helene, moved to nearby Tartu while Elise was still young. The city, the second largest in Estonia, has long been considered the intellectual and cultural capital of the country and Elise would retain a deep affection for Tartu throughout her life.
Elise went to school at the Second Elementary School and then the Pushkin Gymnasium, until it was evacuated to Russia in 1918 when the German army occupied the town. Elise transferred her studies to the Russian Gymnasium of the Tartu Schoolmasters‘ Society. After passing extra exams in maths, physics and Latin, she was admitted to the University of Tartu in May 1920 to study medicine. Käer‘s research skills became evident early on, when her work on the healing properties of Estonian mud was published in the Eesti Arst (Estonian Doctor) journal, making her the first woman to have her work published in the journal.
Käer graduated as a physician in 1924, and enrolled at the university‘s chemistry department to pursue her studies, while also teaching at a girls‘ high school and a local elementary school.
In 1931, Elise married Georg Kingisepp, an assistant at Tartu University‘s Institute of Pharmacology. The couple would have two children: Aime-Reet (born in 1931) and Peet-Henn (born in 1936), both of whom would eventually follow their parents into research careers.
A high-flying scientist
Elise‘s academic career progressed steadily, and in 1934 she was awarded her doctoral degree, in the process becoming just the second Estonian woman to qualify from Tartu University. Five years later, in March 1939, she managed to get the post of assistant professor in pharmacology.
In 1941, Elise was promoted to a more senior post in the pharmacology department before being named professor and head of the Chair of Physiology and Biological Chemistry in the autumn of 1944. Held in great esteem by her peers, she chaired the Estonian Society of Physiology from 1953 to 1980.
Käer-Kingisepp‘s great passion in research was sports science, particularly athletes‘ cardiac and respiratory functions. She was instrumental in ensuring that Tartu University became one of the few centres excelling in sports medicine in the former Eastern bloc.
A committed advocate for women scientists
Elise Käer-Kingisepp was not just an excellent physician and researcher; she was also a high-profi le campaigner for the advancement of women in science in Estonia. She became involved in the Society of Estonian Women Students in 1923 and was elected to chair its committee for foreign relations a year later. Elise‘s strong language skills (she spoke German, French, English and Russian) meant that she was soon representing Tartu University in a variety of international student forums across Europe. At the same time, Käer used her position as a member of the local student newspaper‘s editorial board to ensure that it published articles relevant to female students.
In 1925, at a meeting of the Society of Estonian Women Students, the young Käer mooted the idea of setting up an Estonian Association of University Women (EANÜ). The suggestion proved popular and the new organisation held its first meeting in Tartu in May 1926.
Elise was vice-chair of the fledgling association between 1925 and 1936, when she became chair of its medical committee. In that role, she influenced the drafting of a new law on childcare, among other things. In the 1930s, Käer-Kingisepp was also instrumental in organising protests by female academics against plans to cut the number of women students. These plans were part of a wider discussion in the country on how to deal with the “overproduction of intellectuals”.
Elise Käer-Kingisepp was fascinated by the history of medicine, a subject she threw herself into later in life when she had stopped teaching. Käer-Kingisepp died in her beloved home town of Tartu on 10 February 1989.
Käer-Kingisepp was one of the first women to obtain her doctorate in Estonia, and went on to become professor and Chair of Physiology and Biological Chemistry at the University of Tartu. She played a central role in ensuring that the university excelled in sports medicine, an area of science that had seen major advances during the course of her career. A scholar totally engaged in social debates, she organised her fellow women academics to defend their right to participate fully in higher education.