Eva Ekeblad

Eva de la Gardie (1724-1786), Swedish scientist

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I could use a nice cold drink.  We’ve talked about the origins of beer (Please see this post:  http://www.historynaked.com/nin-kasi-lady-fills-mouth-beer/), but sometimes something a bit stronger is necessary.  So we move on to vodka.  In fairness, the lady who is the subject of this post did not only pave the way for vodka but many other things.  However, as I sip a Moscow Mule, vodka seems the most important.

Eva Ekeblad was born July 10, 1724 to statesman Count Magnus Julius De La Gardie and his wife Hedvig Catharina Lilja.  Interestingly, her brother was married to Catherine Charlotte De La Gardie, who also a scientist.  Catherine invented a smallpox vaccine and was instrumental in stopping Sweden’s last witch trial in 1758.  Perhaps Eva took inspiration from her sister in law.

As was customary for the nobility, Eva was married at the young age of sixteen to Count Claes Caesson Ekeblad.  It was considered a good match and the two eventually had a son and six daughters, and the family spent time in their two castles-  Mariedal Castle and Lindholmen Castle, Västergötland.  Nice work if you can get it.  Eva was quite active in management of the family lands, and her mind had a definite scientific bend.  At that time in Sweden, there was a shortage of oats and barley.  If someone could find a substitute, they would be not only helping the country but rich to boot.  In an effort to exploit a new cash crop, Eva began experimenting on potatoes.  At that time, potatoes were not considered fit for human consumption and used only for animal fodder.  Eva grew her own patch of potatoes and began to study them.  Her experiments discovered a way to cook and powder the potatoes to form a form of flour.  From there, it was a short step to distilling them to make a clear alcoholic beverage- our old friend vodka.  

In 1784, Eva submitted her findings to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and at twenty-four became the first female member.  Her work promoting the use of potatoes in place of other cereal grains, alleviated the food shortages in Sweden.  The potato wasn’t used for general food consumption in Sweden until the 19th century, but the popularity of vodka swept Northern Europe.  With potatoes being used for vodka, the oats, rye and barley it freed up was used to feed the poor.  Despite these achievements, her membership in the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences was downgraded to “honorary” in 1751 because she was a woman.  Nice.  I wonder if they were sipping some nice vodka when they did it.  She was the only female to make the academy’s list until nuclear physicist Lise Meiner was admitted in 1941.

What Eva thought of the downgrade we don’t know.  She continued her scientific work, researching a way to bleach cotton and yarn without using toxic dyes.  She also continued her experimentation with potatoes and found that potato flour could be used as a substitute in cosmetics for more dangerous materials such as lead.  All of this while raising her seven children, running her family’s estates and later being a lady in waiting to Queen Sophia Magdalena, as Mistress of the Robes and governess to Crown Prince Gustav IV Adolf.  This extraordinary woman passed at age 61 at her home in Mariedal.

So let’s raise a glass to Eva Ekeblad, without whom we could not enjoy delicious cocktails.

ER