Drinking potatoes – a woman scientist in the 18th century
Little Eva de la Gardie was a fortunate girl. Born in 1724 into one of the more affluent and progressive Swedish families, she was destined to make a very good marriage, populate the world with very many babies, and in general thereby live a full life. What else could a girl want for, hey?
Not much, according to Eva (and Eva’s mother) and therefore little Eva’s early years were spent educating her into the perfect wife. Not a wife that would need to do much cooking or mending – Eva was destined to be a lady, and as such was trained to oversee, to drag a gloved finger over the mantle-piece to ensure it was adequately dusted, to be capable of planning meals for huge parties, of doing the accounts for a large country estate. Further to this, she was taught to sew, to sing a little tune or two, to dance – by the time Eva’s mother was done, little Eva was the perfect future bride, and even better, she was perfectly happy with this rosy future.
However: Eva was a very bright girl, and on top of all her domestic skills, she also read a lot, having a most surprising interest in factual books about horse breeding and crop improvement rather than the romances the gentler sex were supposed to enjoy.
At the age of sixteen, Eva became a wife. Her husband, Claes Claesson Ekeblad, was twice as old as she was – and rich. At an age where modern girls dream about boys and spend their weekends partying, Eva was the mistress of a large country estate and already pregnant with her first child. Apparently she did a very good job of things. Her husband was more than happy with his little wife, and they were very devoted to each other – so devoted for there to be a baby every other year, and for her to have the reputation of being the only woman in the higher circles of society who had not dishonoured her husband (Swedish sin was alive and kicking already back then, one gathers).
At the time, Sweden’s educated elite was spending a lot of time discussing this new arrival, the potato. The same elite was also rather worried about the lack of cereals – present yield of oats and barley was not enough to keep the country in food AND in snaps (Swedish version of vodka). No one seems to have considered eating the potato – it was a well-known fact one could contract leprosy from doing so. But the strange plant could be used to feed the beasts with, and someone had heard that in Germany they made snaps from potatoes. This latter statement mostly made the learned elite (all men, we can safely presume) laugh. Who would want to drink something produced from a potentially poisonous tuber?
Eva – Countess Ekeblad – had a more hands on approach to the problem. She grew potatoes on one of her husband’s estates, mostly because of the decorative flowers which she used to adorn her hair with. She was also quite familiar with the scarcity of barley and oats, and as she’d heard the potato could be used as food she started experimenting with it. Potato flour was one of her earlier successes – even more so when she discovered the flour could be used instead of arsenic as face and wig powder. And sometime in 1748, the countess succeeded in producing snaps from her potatoes. Immediate success. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (which included that learned elite we discussed earlier) nearly fell over their feet in their haste to congratulate the young countess. So impressed were these gentlemen, that the 24-year-old countess was elected a member of the Academy – the first female so to be honoured.
“Umm,” said the bashful countess, “I was only experimenting based on what my dear husband was sharing with me.”
Dear husband gets full points for refusing to take any credit, insisting this was all due to the little wife.
After Eva’s discovery, everyone wanted to cultivate potatoes. Not to eat them, of course – only idiots or truly desperate people would lower themselves to eating this strange crop – but to make snaps out of them. Eventually, someone discovered one could eat them as well, these odd little tubers, but not until the mid 19th century was the potato established as a food crop. And in the intervening years, Eva’s discovery would lead to a worrying growth in alcohol consumption, which was not a good thing for women in all the walks of life. Inebriated men are dangerous men – especially if you’re a woman.
After these successful forays into the world of science, Eva seems to have exhausted most of her enthusiasm for experimenting. (She did present some further findings to the academy in the years to come, this time concentrated on how to bleach cotton) Instead, she reverted to being what she was born to be, namely be a perfect wife and mother – and the mistress of her husband’s estates, a role she clearly excelled at. Somewhat fiery, the countess kept her stewards on their toes, her husband happy and her children well cared for.
Eva died at the age of 62, in 1786. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences thereby lost its first (and only) female member. Not until 1951 would a woman be elected a member of the academy again. By then, Sweden was a country where everyone ate potatoes – and drank snaps. And all because of a young countess and her fondness for the blue potato flower.