Kirstine Bjerrum Meyer was born on October 12th, 1861 in Skærbæk to Christiane Degn and Niels Janniksen Bjerrum. She was 18 when life took her to Copenhagen, where she moved in with her older brother, ophthalmologist Jannik Petersen Bjerrum. His home served as a gathering place for people interested in science. It was there that Kirstine got enamored with the exact sciences and inspired to embark on a pioneering, life-long journey.
She received a teacher’s degree from N. Zahles Skole in 1882, where she later worked as a science teacher for many years, followed by her post as a censor. In 1892, Kirstine, together with Hanna Adler, graduated with a master’s degree in physics from the University of Copenhagen and became one of the first two female physicists in Denmark. Kirstine and Hanna’s friendship was inspiring and valuable for both of them. Kirstine spent 30 years, from 1900-1930, teaching boys and girls side by side at Hanna’s school at Sortedam Dosseringen and became an associate professor in 1920.
As a university student, Kirstine noticed just how uneasy it made her geology professor Johannes Frederik Johnstrup to have a single female student in the classroom. Therefore, he went to great lengths not to leave her alone with her male colleagues for too long. Once, he even arranged for a female companion for Kirstine during an excursion to Bornholm. She found the gesture to be “caring – but quite unnecessary.“
Through social gatherings at her brother’s house, Kirstine met mathematician Adolph Constantin Meyer, whom she married in 1885. Their marital happiness abruptly ended when Adolph died 11 years later, leaving 35-year-old Kirstine a widow and a single parent. But these unenvious circumstances did not deter Kirstine from her work and career.
In the attempt to investigate the Royal Danish Academy of Science and Letters prize subject “to examine whether there exists a general equation of state for all fluid bodies“, Kirstine performed a comparative study of 30 different substances in terms of pressure, volume and temperature. The paper Om overensstemmende Tilstande hos Stofferne (On Conforming Conditions of the Substances) summarized her results and earned Kirstine the Gold Medal of the Royal Danish Academy of Science and Letters in 1899. In their evaluation, professors Christian Christiansen and Peter Kristian Prytz wrote: “It is obvious that the author holds the scientific insight demanded to go through with this work; he has used the available experimental material in a thorough and profound way, and he has presented a genuine answer to the prize offered at a level that we can only hope that the author intends to publish the results. Therefore, we can only recommend to the Academy that the work is rewarded with the Gold Medal of the Academy.” After opening the name tag, it turned out that HE is actually a SHE. Additionally, Kirstine received the Gold Medal of Merit in 1920 and the Tagea Brandts Travel Grant in 1925.
In 1902, Kirstine co-founded Fysisk Tidsskrift, the Danish journal of physics. Besides informing on the latest achievements in physics, the journal provided a forum-like space for discussions of educational issues, something Kirstine cared for very much. She served as the editor of the journal until 1910 and co-publisher until 1912. Many education-related posts she occupied reflect her deep care for bettering Danish education. She was a member of several committees regarding the School Act of 1903, became the head of the vocational teachers’ practical pedagogical education in 1908, and a member of the examination commission for the seminars in 1909. Further, Kirstine became chairman of the board for the subject teacher examination in 1916, a member of the large school commission from 1919-1923, and the chairman of the external examiners in physics at Copenhagen University’s school official examination from 1928. All in all, Kirstine was essential to establishing a physics curriculum within the Danish school system.
After being initially bypassed for the position of a professional assistant to the education inspector for the high schools in 1903, as education inspector at that time, Martin Clarentius Gertz did not dare to appoint a woman, Kirstine finally did get appointed in 1910. She occupied the position until 1932 and was greatly respected and a tiny bit feared on occasion. Similarly, Kirstine’s gender prevented her from getting permanent employment at the boys’ school Metropolitanskolen, where she worked as a substitute from 1892-1893. Kirstine herself remarked on how difficult it is to reach high positions as a woman and said: “In such a case, the qualifications must be well above those of the competitors. However – this is a useful path to empowerment.”
In 1909, Kirstine’s educational and research efforts culminated when she earned a doctorate in natural sciences from the University of Copenhagen and became the first woman in Denmark to accomplish this. Her doctoral dissertation “Temperaturbegrebets Udvikling gennem Tiderne” (The Development of the Temperature Concept through Time) provided an in-depth examination of the historical development of the concepts of heat and temperature, celebrating her interest in thermochemistry.
Her investigative nature and passion for both physics and history resulted in her publishing quite a few articles and monographs concerning Danish scientists, such as H. C. Ørsted and Ole Rømer. This work constituted a valuable contribution that Kirstine made to the history of physics. Notably, she uncovered a previously unknown Ole Rømer’s (1644 – 1710) Latin manuscript “Adversaria” in the University of Copenhagen Library. With her friend Thyra Eibe, a mathematician proficient in Latin, Kirstine published Rømer’s notebook in 1910. With a 200-year delay, this publication shed new light on Rømer’s impressive work and knowledge across multiple fields and provided precious information for the history of science.
Friends and family described Kirstine as “a down-to-earth, stubborn woman who made strict demands on herself as well as others.” Kirstine advocated for a more experiment-based approach to teaching physics and for students to make their own educational experiences, quite a modern idea at that time. As a science teacher at N. Zahles Skole, she enjoyed a reputation of being a knowledgeable and inspiring teacher. Niels Janniksen Bjerrum’s testimony that Kirstine inspired him to study science shows just how inspiring she indeed was. On her 75th birthday, Niels Bohr recalled that their relationship began from a young age when his aunt Hanna taught him to look up to Kirstine. Niels Bohr intended to publish a tribute for her 80th birthday, but instead, it became an obituary when Kirstine Bjerrum Meyer died on September 28th, 1941, in Hellerup. She left us a rich scientific legacy and paved a path for many female physicists to come.
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