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Kristine Elisabeth Heuch Bonnevie

Born  1872
Died  1948

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Norwegian zoologist and geneticist, 1872-1948.

Biography of Kristine Elisabeth Heuch Bonnevie

Kristine Bonnevie was born in Trondheim, the major city in central Norway. She was one of the nine children of Jacob Aall Bonnevie (1838–1905), a teacher and cabinet minister. Among her siblings were the brothers Carl Emil Christian Bonnevie and Thomas Bonnevie, and the sister Honoria, who was married to the famous meteorologist Vilhelm Bjerknes (1862-1951). After her death, Bonnevie and Bjerknes had common household and Vilhelm Bjerknes sons, an architect, designed a house specially for them.

Kristine Bonnevie was fourteen years of age when the family moved to Oslo, where she graduated from the Gymnasium in 1892. In 1892 she entered Det Kongelige Frederiks Universitet (now the University of Oslo) to study medicine, but soon changed to zoology.

She obtained her PhD in 1906 with a thesis Undersøgelser over kimcellerne hos Enteroxenos østergreni. In 1912 she became the first female professor in Norway when she was appointed professor of zoology, and head of the zoological laboratory until 1938; director of the institute of genetic research from 1916.

Already in her first year of study she entered the Zoological laboratory – never to leave it. However, she loved nature and was fascinated by animal life and spent her "leisure" time well, both at biological stations along the coast, or with the fishermen among the islands. She loved these tours, "where work and pleasure is so tightly interwoven that you cannot tell where the one ands and the other begins." Her early work, in the closing years of the nineteenth century, included the appraisal of ascidiae and hydroidea specimens collected by the North Oceans Expedition. In customary way her first work was published with her teacher.

Kristine Bonnevie began as a pupil of Johan Hjort, but also received many impulses during educational journeys abroad. She learned cytological techniques under Arnold Lang in Zurich (1898-1899) and Theodor Boveri in Würzburg (1900-1901). She then commenced her doctoral project, which concerned the development of germ cells of a parasitic snail. The investigation led Bonnevie into a life-long interest in chromosomal structure and function. At this time, 1906-1907, Bonnevie trained with the American biologist, Edmund Beecher Wilson (1856–1939) at Columbia University, New York.

In 1911 she became the first female member of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters when she was elected to the science class.

As a recognition of her expertise, Kristine Bonnevie became the first opponent, and the first female opponent ever at the university, when Hjalmar Broch in 1910 obtained his doctorate for a work on hydroids in Arctic oceans. Broch named a hydroide for her, Bonneviella grandis.

In 1900 Bonnevie obtained an appointment as a curator of the museum of zoology. Georg Ossian Sars (1837-1927) and Robert Collett willingly left both teaching and administration to their new colleague. In 1910 she applied for a professorship in Bergen, being the preferred candidate. This, however, caused concern with Sars and Collett? What would happen if they lost Bonnevie? Action was called for! In the spring of 1912 Stortinget, the Norwegian Parliament, gave women access to office, and the same year Det Kongelige Frederiks Universitet (University of Kristiania, now Oslo) made her professor extraordinary. In 1919 she entered the chair of zoology as ordinarius, remaining in this tenure until reaching the age limit in 1937.

The magazine Folkebladet in 1912 wrote in a portrait of her: "It is only during the holidays that dr. Bonnevie can work on her scientific studies. During holidays she takes her work with her to Rondane (a mountain range). She had two cabins up there. One was used by Vilhelm Bjerknes, while Kristine Bonnevie stayed at the mountain farm "Snefugl" ("Snow bird"), a place visited by many of her students.

In the early 20th century (1900-1914) she made significant contributions in the formative period in research on cell division and chromosomes.

In 1908 Bonnevie published an article that contributed to the establishment of the modern concept of the structure of chromosomes. It took 25 years for her interpretation the be proven right. Kristine Bonnevie became involved in human genetics in 1912, when she instituted a large-scale study of inheritance. In 1914 Bonnevie embarked on a new field of research: Investigations of inheritance in man. Her studies emphasised dwarfism, polydactyly and twin research in endogamous, isolated communities in mountainous and fjord regions. Bonnevie knew that the population of Norwegian mountain societies were relatively isolated and thus a fit material for studies of heritable disposition for twin births, as well as for certain abnormalities, like the occurrence of more fingers or toes than normal. In order to give these time-consuming investigations an institutional anchoring, Bonnevie, with three other professors, in 1916 established a University Institute for Research on Heredity. She remained its director until her retirement. This university institute made it easier to separate the scientific aspects of human genetics from the more politically infested area of racial hygiene.

Within this institute Bonnevie undertook extensive comparative studies of the development and genetics of papillary patterns. Bonnevie’s comparative studies of certain malformations in mouse and man led to, among other things, the term Bonnevie-Ullrich syndrome for a diseased condition in man.

In 1927 Bonnevie became interested in gene action during embryogenesis, using hereditary defects in mice as her experimental model. She retired from her chair in 1937, at the age of 65 years, but continued with her research in the Zoology Laboratory and publishing papers both during and after the war. The evening before she died she returned the proofsheats of her last work with the message that it should be published as soon as possible.

Bonnevie was a popular teacher, recognised for her inspiring lectures and made a considerable effort as a lecturer and writer of popular science. When she entered her study, there was little contact between lecturer and student. This was changed when Johan Hjort introduced laboratory training with practical courses, a method of teaching that was followed up by Bonnevie, who put a lot of effort into her lecturing. One of her students has told that before a lecture Bonnevie stood for hours making dotted lines on the blackboard – invisible for the students. Then, with the help of coloured chalk, organs and structures grew as the lecture progressed. The students became used to her lectures lasting longer than the ordinary 56 minutes.

Kristine Bonnevie never had children of her own. Instead, her concern was for the welfare of the students. On hr initiative several student homes for young women were established, the first in 1916. During World War I she stood behind initiatives that were invaluable for many of the students. She established and headed a committee that distributed food and shelter to students from other parts of the country and even rented a piece of land where students could grow their own potatoes under her firm supervision. The students' canteens were also her work. In 1920 she received the Royal Gold Medal of Merit (Kongens fortjenstmedalje i gull) for her services in this respect. Bonnevie had a forceful character and a strong sense of civic duty. From 1908 to 1919 she was a representative to the City Council of Kristiania (now Oslo City Council). 1916-1918 she was a deputy to the Norwegian parliament. She was also a member of the Norwegian delegation to the five first assemblies of the League of Nations in Geneva (1920-24)..

1946 Bonnevie was honoured by appointment as Knight 1st Class of the Order of St. Olav for her courage during the war in connection with the organisation of food supplies for the resistance and her students. After the university was closed by the Nazis in November 1943, relief packets of Danish food were distributed from her own flat.

In 1935 she received the Fridtjof Nansen Reward (Fridtjof Nansens belønning). The biology building of the University of Oslo, Blindern, is Kristine Bonnevies hus in her honour. This naming was done by the Collegium in 1982, one hundred years after the first female student entered the university.

She advocated an independent teaching of ethics in public schools, and, until her last year of life participated in the preparations for instituting a non religious confirmation.

Bonnevie died in 1948 at the age of 76 years. In a eulogy given at meeting of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, Bjørn Føyn quoted her personal philosophy: "Age and death follow as natural parts of the life of each subject – in the same way as the plants wither at the end of their flowering period. The individual has done its deed, and life is at an end. But if they have succeeded during their lifetime in arriving at some of the goals of the ethics of Nature, to live according to the best in their characters, then their lives will, without doubt, leave some marks behind among their fellows and relatives."

One of those profoundly influenced by Kristine Bonnevie was the Norwegian explorer and scientist Thor Heyerdahl, who first studied zoology.

    "The joy of work is one of the sure and great pleasures in life. It remains through shifting external conditions and becomes stronger the more you wear it."

    Om det lykkes menneskene
    "under sin levetid å gjennomføre den naturlige etikks mål, å leve opp til det beste i sin egen natur, da vil deres liv utvilsomt ha satt spor som lever videre etter dem, både blant deres medmennesker og i den slekt de tilhører".
    ("If man in his lifetime succeeds to achieve the goals of natural ethics, an to live up to it in his own nature, then their lifes will have set traces that live on after themselves, both among their fellow human beings and among the kindred to which they belong")
    Kristine Bonnevie in 1939 when asked about her view of life.

    "Det ikke er i bøker og samlinger, men ute i den fri og levende natur vår viden må søke sine kilder".
    "It is not in books or collections, but in the free and living nature our knowledge must seek its sources".


  • K. Bonnevie:
    Studies on papillary patterns of human fingers.
    Journal of Genetics, Cambridge 1924: 15: 1-111
  • K. Bonnevie:
    Zur Mechanik der Papillarmusterbildung. I. Die Epidermis als formativer Faktor in der Entwicklung der Fingerbeeren und der Papillarmuster.
    Archiv für Entwicklungsmechanik der Organismen, 1929, 117: 384.
  • Bjørn Føyn:
    Eulogy. Meeting of Norwegian Academy for Science. September 30, 1949.
  • Kristine Bonnevie, Poul Bonnevie:
    Familien Bonnevie i Norge och Danmark.
    Oslo 1931. 252 pages.

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