Vivi Täckholm was a professor of botany at Cairo University who authored a unique flora, Flora of Egypt. She also wrote a series of popular science works on the plants and history of Egypt.
Vivi Täckholm was born in 1898 in Djursholm. She was the daughter of Edvard Laurent, a doctor, and his wife Lilly. Her mother had gained her academic training at Uppsala University where she had been the first woman enroll in the Västmanland-Dala student society. She had worked as a teacher before she got married. Vivi Täckholm’s home could thus be described as progressive. Her parents were politically and socially active, particularly within Studenter och arbetare, an organisation which had been founded by Edvard Laurent in order to resolve class divisions.
Vivi Täckholm was educated at the Whitlock co-educational school in Stockholm. After gaining her school-leaving certificate she continued studying at what was then Stockholm College. There she gained her Bachelor’s degree, specialising in botany. She then started travelling in order to become acquainted with and learn to understand other societies. Her first journey took her to the USA, where she spent a year. She provided for herself by working as a maid, a nursemaid, and a decorator as she travelled from the East Coast to the West Coast. When she returned to Sweden she published a book entitled Vivis resa, 1923, which contains the comprehensive, humorous, and illustrated letters that she had written to her parents during her travels. It became a bestseller and was subsequently translated into many languages. She got a job on the editorial board of Nordisk familjebok, but continued to write on the side. In 1926 she published her first and perhaps best-known children’s book, Boken om Snipp, Snapp, Snorum.
In 1926 Vivi Täckholm married the botanist Gunnar Täckholm and together they moved to Cairo, where Gunnar Täckholm was to be a visiting professor at what was then Fuad University. Vivi Täckholm quickly became involved in her husband’s efforts to set up a botanical institution and, on her own initiative, she began to work on an Egyptian flora in the spirit of one of Linnaeus’ disciples Peter Forsskål. Her ambition and sphere of interest extended far beyond the known flora; she began the work with describing the wild, cultivated, and imported plants of Egypt as well as grave plants, which she considered from botanical, ethnological, mythological and language historical aspects. This was a gigantic task – for example, she dedicated 108 pages to the date palm alone. Her work with the flora became a life-long commitment.
The Täckholm couple returned to Sweden in 1929. Vivi Täckholm continued to work on Flora of Egypt, partly by studying the plants in famous herbariums in Berlin, Geneva and London. Gunnar Täckholm died in 1933 and Vivi Täckholm was then required to provide for herself as a lecturer and journalist, but she continued working on the flora on the side. She finally returned to Cairo in 1938 in order to oversee the publication of the first part of the flora. However, the outbreak of the Second World War forced her to return home. During the war she set up Blomsterklubben, an association which cultivated and sold potted plants, and which eventually numbered more than 100,000 members. She was also the initiator of Tysta hjälpen, a national organisation which supplied the neighbouring Nordic countries with necessities during the war. She was awarded medals from both Norway and Finland for this work once the war had ended.
In 1946 Vivi Täckholm returned to Cairo permanently. Having been appointed honorary doctor of Stockholm College in 1952 she was then given the title of visiting professor at Cairo University. This meant she could seriously begin to build up the botanical institution. Her scientific work mainly consisted in actively supporting students and doctoral students in their work, as well as a few publications such as: “Les plantes découvertes dans les souterrains de l’enceinte du roi Zoser à Saqqarah”, 1932, written in collaboration with the French Egyptologist and architect Jean-Philippe Lauer, and “The Plant of Naqada”, 1951. Her ambition was to create a modern and well-equipped institution for botanical studies and, during her lifetime, it came to be considered to be the best in Africa and the Middle East. In 1964 Vivi Täckholm was the first woman, and first Swede, to be elected as a member of the prestigious Institut d’Égypte in Cairo, an academy of sciences which had been founded by Napoleon. She was later awarded several official distinctions by the Egyptian state in recognition of her botanical work.
Vivi Täckholm was an altruist who sought to generate understanding between different cultures, for instance by publishing a series of books during the 1960s and 1970s, including Faraos barn: kopterna i Egypten, 1965, Öknen blommar, 1969, and Sagans minareter: en bok om islam, 1971. Towards the end of her life she also wrote a couple of children’s books: one on space, Lillans resa till månen: En saga för stora och små, 1976, and one about the world seas, Våra hav: En bok för stora och små, 1978.
Vivi Täckholm died in Stockholm in May 1978 and is buried in the old cemetery in Uppsala. Her significance for botany in the Middle East, and particularly Egypt, is still acclaimed in Egypt where there is not only a library but also a herbarium at Cairo University named after her.