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6 Cool Facts About Eva Ekeblad, The Scientist Who Made Vodka From Potatoes

Today's Google doodle honours her brilliance.

Google is celebrating Eva Ekeblad's 293 birthday with a doodle today. Hic.

She's the genius Swedish scientist and agronomist (plant researcher) we have to thank for the elixirs of heartbreak: vodka, moonshine and potato wine. Hic.

The doodle could not have come at a better time. Hic.

Screengrab from Google

One of the important talking points at the recently concluded G20 Summit in Germany was the inclusion of the world's women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) related fields by providing better training. According to a 2015 fact sheet by UNESCO, globally, only 30 percent STEM researchers are women. The situation is even worse when it comes to STEM-related awards. Out of the 575 Nobel laureates in physics, chemistry and medicine between 1901 and 2016, only 18 are women. Since its inception in 1936, the Fields Medal, the most prestigious prize in mathematics, was won by a woman, Maryam Mirzakhani from Iran, for the first time in 2014.

Sobering thought, isn't it?

Given this history, Google's decision to honour Ekeblad's "ingenuity and scientific achievements" is a very welcome move.

Here are some fascinating facts about her life.

SarapulSar38 via Getty Images

She was only 22 when she discovered the many uses of potato

Although potatoes were available in Sweden since 1658, they weren't considered human food until the mid-18 century. Prior to Ekeblad's experiments with the vegetable, potatoes were used as animal food in Sweden. The idea of using potatoes to produce alcohol was not new — in 1941, there was a lecture in the Swedish Parliament by Jacob Albrecht von Lantingshausens, who spoke about using potatoes for brandy production. Eva's husband, Claes Ekeblad, was a member of the parliament and took great interest in the idea. Eva grew her own potatoes and during her experiments, found that they could be used to create a kind of flour and alcohol. This was in 1746 when she was just 22 years old. Her method for alcohol production using potatoes was considered the most advanced of the time, even though the concept was not new.

Her discovery helped reduce Sweden's famine crisis

Once Ekeblad's discovered that potatoes could be used to make alcohol, there was more wheat, rye and barley available for making bread. Her discovery also turned potato into a staple food in Sweden, even though it did lead to a spike in alcohol consumption in the country.

JGI/Jamie Grill

At 24, she became the first woman member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

She was the first woman scientist elected to the Academy in 1748, though, in 1751, the Academy referred to her as an honorary member because full membership was reserved for men. It took a full 203 years for the next woman member to be elected to the Academy. In 1951, Lisa Meitner, an Austrian radioactivity and nuclear physicist, became the second female member and the first female foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Apart from her research into potatoes, another factor that helped Ekeblad's election was that the Academy of Sciences in Bologna had elected their first female scientist, Laura Bassi, a Newtonian physicist, in 1732, after her appointment as the chair of physics (called Natural Philosphy at the time) by the senate and the University of Bologna.

Potato alcohol was not her only scientific discovery

Ekeblad's contribution to science and experiments with potato were not restricted to alcohol. She is also credited with discovering a method to bleach cotton textile and yarn with soap in 1751 and, in 1752, for finding a replacement for dangerous chemicals used in wigs in the form of potato flour. She advertised the potato plant by using its flowers to adorn her wigs.


She was not the only visionary in her family

Eva's brother was married to Catharina Charlotta Taube De La Gardie. Around the same time as Ekeblad's success as a scientist, Charlotta too was engaged in her efforts to improve life in Sweden. Sweden was then experiencing a terrible outbreak of smallpox. In 1756, Charlotta tried to convince the authorities to inoculate people with the smallpox vaccine to help control its spread. The idea was met with great suspicion and resistance. Charlotta then vaccinated her own family, which finally convinced local farmers to vaccinate their children. Her efforts are considered to be the reason for the breakthrough for smallpox vaccination in Sweden.

Charlotta is also famous for ending witch hysteria and hunts in Sweden. In 1758, she learned of the arrest of many women in Dalarna and that they were being tortured to confess they were witches. The matter became a national scandal when Charlotta fought on behalf of these women and led to the firing and punishment of those who ordered the torture. Witch trials were abolished in Sweden since then. For her bravery, Catharina Charlotta Taube De la Gardie was awarded a gold medal in 1761, an honour rarely conferred upon women.

She was married to a man twice her age, had seven children and managed the family business

In 1740, at the age of 16, she married 32-year-old Claes Claesson Ekeblad and they lived in Stockholm. Between 1742 and 1754, she gave birth to six daughters and one son, in addition to managing the family's three estates, supervising the bailiffs and presiding over the country assemblies of the parishes of their estates.

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