Anna Sundström (1785 - 1871)

Anna SundströmAnna Sundström was one of Sweden’s first female chemists. For more than twenty years she worked in an unofficial capacity with the chemist Jacob Berzelius, as an assistant and collaborator. She was one of few 19th century women who had expertise in chemistry, but her carrier ended suddenly when Berzelius married.

In her twenties Anna Sundström worked as a maidservant in Östermalm, Stockholm. When in 1808 the chemist Jacob Berzelius moved into the same house she also became his laboratory assistant. Ten years later, when Berzelius moved, Anna Sundström went with him and was employed as his housekeeper.

Preferred cleaning laboratory glassware to cooking

Anna Sundström kept everything in order in the laboratory, assisted with the experiments and even monitored Berzelius’s students. When guests came for dinner, she prepared the meals, but it was the work in the laboratory that really interested her.

One of Berzelius’s scientist friends wrote in a letter: ”….Anna’s interest in science is shown by the fact that she thinks it is more enjoyable to wash the chemical glassware than the plates and glasses, and that she would rather produce hydrogen sulphide than prepare dinner.”

Sudden end to her career in chemistry

At the age of 50 Anna Sundström was dismissed. Berzelius had become engaged to be married and it was considered inappropriate for a housekeeper from his bachelor days to remain in the household after the marriage. Although she was invited to stay on as a cook, Sundström could not come to terms with the situation and the relationships with Berzelius’s wife-to-be and mother-in-law became strained. What happened next is not known, but it is not impossible that she received some economic support from Berzelius and his students.

It is difficult to know the extent of Anna Sundström’s scientific contribution; no notes are preserved, but there is no doubt that she was one of few women in the 19th century who had proficiency in chemistry. The Swedish Chemistry Society gives an annual ’Anna Sundström Award’ to a prominent thesis within inorganic chemistry.

1808        Jacob Berzelius moves into the house where Anna Sundström is already
                working as a maid
1818        Employed by Berzelius as a housekeeper, though in practice she is a
                laboratory assistant
1835        Dismissed as a result of Berzelius’s marriage