Professor Vivi

During the week-ends leading up to Christmas, all sorts of Christmas markets pop up all around town; the art schools have their X-mas markets, different welfare organizations and societies have their markets, Skansen has its famous X-market, and the Old Town of course too. It is fun to visit the markets, because one might stumble upon some nice things that are otherwise difficult to find.
Last Saturday I visited one of these markets, where handcrafts and other homemade things were sold, and came across a table with books for sale. My eyes caught sight of a book entitled ‘Professor Vivi – the fabulous botanist’, and I realized immediately that it must have to do with the famous Vivi Täckholm, who worked as professor in botany at Kairo University between 1946-1978. Ever since my first and only visit to Egypt more than 10 years ago she had intrigued me, because everyone I met at the university there talked about her and asked if I would know her. But I did not know her then and had no idea who she was, because her fame had faded by the time I had arrived in Sweden in 1991.
Of course I bought the book and even received an autograph from the author Beata Arnborg.
The general story goes that Vivi Täckholm had replaced her deceased husband Gunnar as professor in Botany at Kairo University. But the real story is very much different. She did not replace her husband, with whom she had visited Egypt before WWII, she did not have a happy marriage, and her husband (who treated her quite badly) died already seven years after they had got married. But he had introduced her to Egypt and to the flora of Egypt, and this set the stage for her further career and for her fascination for Egypt. But what a career! Not the straightforward path, which most male scientists would have taken at that time, a PhD degree, a position at a university and finally a professorship.
Vivi had to struggle hard for her passion – the publication of Egypt’s flora, the flowers of ancient and modern Egypt, the building up of a Botany Department, of a Herbarium, and teaching and supervising students in botany. After many years in Egypt she was finally appointed visiting professor at Kairo University (not because of her husband, but because she had earned it herself through hard work!), and although she received a salary, it was not always enough. Royalties from her many popular science books, and financial support from friends and institutions helped to bridge times when money was scarce. But she did not seem to care, not when money was short, or troubles turned up and life was difficult. With a seemingly endless energy she organized courses and excursions for her students, published her books, and welcomed and taught visitors everything she knew about Egypt.
I really would have liked to meet Vivi Täckholm, would have loved to visit her in the Botany Department at Kairo University, join her on her excursions to the desert, and listen to her many stories. Her never-ending enthusiasm, her passion for her research, and her dedication for her students are fascinating.
Beata Arnborg’s book about Vivi Täckström is not a literary masterpiece, she repeats herself to some extent, and might have got some of the plant names wrong, but she has done a marvelous job in piecing together the story of an amazing and strong woman! Telling the story of Vivi’s life and struggle is much more important in this respect than missing the names of a few plants! Many more books should be written about the lives, the work and achievements of female scientists of the 19th and 20th century, who are no longer visible because they have vanished in the male jungle.

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