Carin Ulin was the first Swedish person to write a dissertation on the subject of developmental psychology. She was a forerunner in neuropsychological research, particularly with regard to fine motor development in children.
Carin Ulin grew up in a financially well-off family in Stockholm. Her father Nils was a merchant who mainly traded with wine. Her mother was called Anna Maria. Carin Ulin never married and didn’t have any children. She lived close to her mother, who was widowed quite early in life. After her mother’s death Carin moved in with her sister, Elna Ulin, who was three years her elder.
Carin Ulin gained her Master of Arts in Swedish and history in 1913. She then went on to study psychology. This included courses on psychology with a medical focus, led by Bror Gadelius. She also completed a course on psychoanalysis for medics, taught by Poul Bjerre. Carin Ulin wanted to study developmental psychology which focused on children’s development, but this was not an established area of research in Sweden at the time. She therefore spent the years 1926-1927 in Vienna studying with Charlotte Bühler, who was a professor of psychology there. Bühler’s research followed two lines: partly studying young people’s diaries – using what today would be termed a narrative psychological approach – but also undertaking observational studies of younger children to record their development using a more experimental form of psychology. Carin Ulin appears to have been influenced by both of Charlotte Bühler’s scientific approaches, which is revealed in her interest in both the humanistic and the natural scientific perspective on children and developmental psychology research. She continued to broaden her network of international contacts. For example, in 1933 she undertook a study trip to Berlin and Pestalozzi-Fröbelhaus, and in 1937 she travelled to the USA in order to study pedagogics for children with various functional impairments. She later invited a range of prominent international researchers, including some from the USA, to Sweden when developmental psychology had become a lively research area.
Carin Ulin advocated a gentle form of child-rearing which she tried to motivate with scientific studies. In 1934 she set up Kristliga föreningen av unga kvinnor’s (the Young Christian Women’s Association) pedagogical institute where she worked as a teacher and headmaster until 1957. Along with Alva Myrdal she set up Pedagogiska Föreningen för Förskoleåldern (PFF, the pedagogical association for pre-schoolers), an association concerned with research, knowledge and clinical work based on developmental psychology. In line with the spirit of the time, Carin Ulin wanted to connect childcare with research-based knowledge which was mainly derived from the measuring and classification of children’s developments. PFF later became a more trade union-focused association and came to represent pre-school teachers. This was not the direction that Carin Ulin had envisaged.
In 1936 Carin Ulin was the first psychologist employed by Psykisk barn- och ungdomsvård, the precursor of today’s Barn- and ungdomspsykiatri (child and adolescent psychiatry). In her clinical work Carin Ulin mainly conducted investigations, in particular on cognitive ability, motor function, dyslexia and what was then known as “skolmognad” (school readiness). Thus she was a pioneer in both academic and clinical neuropsychology. She often claimed that those who cared for children needed knowledge of their brain functions, not least in order to understand those children with functional impairments. Carin Ulin herself had functional impairments caused by the polio she had suffered from at the age of 13.
In 1949 Carin Ulin defended her thesis at Gothenburg University, entitled Handaktivitetens utveckling under förskoleålder. Her supervisor was John Elmgreen, professor of psychology at Gothenburg University, whose research included work on cognitive functions. Carin Ulin also wrote articles for the press and for popular science books on developmental psychology. In 1952 a layman’s version of her thesis was published, titled Barnhänder i lek och arbete, where the cover blurb described her as “the famous child psychologist”. The book’s detailed descriptions of how scissors, pens, soaps and lumps of clay are to be held and treated comes across as a bit flat to the modern reader. However, Carin Ulin purposefully used those descriptions. She wanted to show that by following a child’s motor function development one could gain an understanding of how they grew and matured, which in turn avoided unreasonable expectations of what a child should be capable of. She highlighted the importance of adjusting to the individual and of spontaneity in childcare and child-rearing. She also advocated that materials and tasks should be relevant to a child’s level of maturity rather than, as she put it, letting various “forms of dressage” occur.
In 1954 Carin Ulin was awarded the royal Illis Quorum medal in recognition of her research and her efforts on behalf of children. She died in her home in Stockholm in 1971. Her grave can be seen at the Norra cemetery in Stockholm.