Ruth Svensson was a doctor, a psychiatrist, and a path-breaking parasitologist.
Ruth Svensson was born in Åbo in 1890. Her father, Johannes Svensson, was a missionary, translator and a linguistic expert who hailed from Värmland. Her mother, Hanna Lindman, was the daughter of a shipwright from Åland. Ruth Svensson was the third of ten children. Seven of the children survived into adulthood. Five of them – including Ruth Svensson – went on to study at university despite the family’s fairly precarious financial situation. Three of the children became doctors: Ruth Svensson, her elder sister Elin, and her younger brother Runar. The sisters intended to work as missionary doctors and were able to complete their studies through funds received from the missionary congregation in Ekenäs. However, Elin Svensson died following a sudden-onset illness shortly before her final exams. Ruth Svensson went on to gain her Bachelor’s degree in medicine from Uppsala in 1912 and her medical licentiate in 1917.
Ruth Svensson spent a few years as a junior doctor in various places, including Sundsvall and Jönköping, as well as a brief stint at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. In 1920 she then travelled to China where she spent three years working as a doctor for Svenska Missionsförbundet (Swedish missionary federation) station in Huanggang (Huangzhou) in Hupeh (modern-day Hubei province) in central China. Initially she served in the station’s medical centre and then at the new hospital which came into service in the autumn of 1922. She was in charge of furnishing and organising the hospital which the Swedish newspapers described as “entirely modern”. The Svenska Missionsförbundet annual report described Ruth Svensson as assiduous and capable. When she left in July 1923 due to health reasons she left a gaping hole behind. However, her departure did not mean that she left China as, from 1923–1925, she served as the senior assistant in parasitology at the Peking Union Medical College run by the Rockefeller Foundation. It was here she began her lifelong research into tropical medicine and, more specifically, parasitology. She was the victim of plagiarism during her initial time in service when her boss published her research results under his own name.
Ruth Svensson returned to Sweden in the mid-1920s and became employed as a psychiatric doctor. This was the most common area of work – apart from general medical care – for female doctors who gained their qualifications in Sweden between 1915 and 1934. Ruth Svensson primarily worked at the Västervik hospital, as well as at the Lund hospital. In 1931 she was employed as chief doctor at the Sankt Lars hospital – which was the new name for the Lund hospital. However, just six months later she moved to Gotland where, from 1932–1936, she served as a doctor and director of the Sankt Olof hospital in Visby. Her role included serving as the doctor for the local jail in Visby. The Medical Board also appointed her as the medical officer for Gotland.
In February 1936 Ruth Svensson was proposed by the same Medical Board for a post as chief doctor at Ulleråker hospital in Uppsala, where she remained in post until her retirement in 1955. In 1938 she was appointed as a doctor of family healthcare and aid services at the hospital. This meant that she was also responsible for extramural hospital services. Her board memberships included: Venngarn, the facility for alcoholics; Salbohed, a state-run school and vocational institution; and Haknäs and Hagbyhem, two facilities for female alcoholics, and she also served as the Hagbyhem doctor until her retirement.
Upon her return to Sweden Ruth Svensson also continue her research into parasitology. She received a number of research stipends and took research leave several times. On 14 December 1935, whilst she was the hospital director on Gotland, she gained her PhD from Uppsala with her thesis entitled Studies on Human Intestinal Protozoa: Especially with regard to their demonstrability and the connexion between their distribution and hygienic conditions. Her choice of subject had enabled her to combine her interest in microbiology and infectious diseases with her practical psychiatric work. Her thesis not only led her to gain a certain international reputation but it was later described of being way ahead of its time. She was awarded her medical doctorate towards the end of May 1936 and in November that same year she was appointed docent in parasitology at Uppsala university. She then carried on with her research into helminthology and protozoology.
Ruth Svensson was a religious person throughout her life. She eventually abandoned her Free church background and in 1939 she converted to Catholicism. She became a prominent figure of the Uppsala Catholic community, including as a member of the Academicum Catholicum Upsaliense in which context she and her friend Toni Schmid, a medieval historian, were known as “the learned ladies”.
In January 1940 Ruth Svensson travelled to Finland as one of 30 doctors and medical candidates who volunteered their services to the Finnish Medical Board. In June 1946 she, along with nine others, was awarded the Illis quorum medal for her zeal and devotion in the service of the Crown. Dagens Nyheter made special mention of the fact that eight of the nine recipients of the medal were women: “most of them were also academics and all of them very prominent within their fields”. It was also noted that three of the eight women were doctors, of which two – Ruth Svensson and Elin Wingquist-Renck at Sundby hospital – worked in psychiatry.
Ruth Svensson continued travelling after her retirement in 1955 and she often travelled with her friend Toni Schmid. These journeys allowed her to study parasites in new surroundings, as well as the illnesses they caused. During the winter of 1958–1959 Ruth Svensson and Toni Schmid undertook a six-month long journey to India and Nepal, during which journey Ruth Svensson gathered “material for a work which would focus on internal parasites”, as expressed in an article carried by Svenska Dagbladet in April 1959. A few weeks later, when the two women had returned, the newspapers reported that they had “witnessed” the flight of the Dalai Lama to India when they were in the borderlands near Tibet.
During the 1960s Ruth Svensson travelled to Egypt on several occasions to undertake clinical studies into parasites of the human digestive system, funded through the Medical research council. Following the Mexican Olympic games in 1968, which left several Swedish tourists infected by hard-to-treat amoebic infections, Ruth Svensson was highlighted as a leading figure of the field who was “better known abroad than at home”. She continued her research right up until her death at the age of 81. At that point she had just had a scientific article accepted for publication in an international journal.
Ruth Svensson died in 1971. At the time she was registered as a member of the Uppsala cathedral congregation.