This is the story of Nielsine Nielsen. An ambitious, wistful teenager, who ended up making history by becoming the first woman in the country to get a university degree.

How we made this article

This article is based on text written by Nielsine Nielsen – in her diary as a teenager and in her memoirs as an adult. We have coloured black-and-white photos of Nielsine and her life using artificial intelligence.
When steamboats passed by, 17-year-old Nielsine yearned to jump aboard. She wanted to leave Svendborg.
My life here is getting more and more unbearable. I have to leave, I have to, I must. If not, I shall perish.

In 1868, young women rarely moved out of home, unless it was to get married. So it was hard to imagine that, 17 years later, Nielsine would not only have achieved her dream of moving away, but would also have become Denmark's first female GP. Yet, there were signs.

Firstly, Nielsine desperately wanted to leave her hometown, which at the time had a population of less than 5,000.

She lived with her parents. And she was the only child left in the house. Her big sister, Laura, was engaged to be married and would soon leave to live with her soon-to-be husband. Two of their siblings had already married, one had died from typhoid fever, and one had drowned in the sea.

Nielsine Nielsen
Nielsine Nielsen in her Sunday best, aged 15, c. 1865. Colourised photo: The Royal Danish Library
Secondly, Nielsine considered herself equal – or even superior – to men intellectually. Possibly because of her relation to her father. He was a former sailor who now rarely left the house, and that made him restless and angry. She confided in her diary:
He cannot contain himself, and yet he belongs to the stronger sex. Manliness, I defy you. You and your imagined strength, who are supposed to be my superior in willpower. No, in a woman you will find stamina and a noble character.
But one day, things changed. Nielsine’s parents were so engrossed in a game of cards that they did not notice the postman delivering the daily newspapers from Copenhagen. Therefore, Nielsine, who was in the next-door sitting room, was the first to open Nationaltidende.
Never before or since have I experienced such excitement. It was as if I had been blind and now all of a sudden regained my sight.”
What had caused this excitement? A short article in the smallest type size. In America, women were now allowed to study medicine, Nielsine read. In one state, a woman even worked as a GP. In a small sitting room, clasping the newspaper, Nielsine had a brilliant idea.
I solemnly swore that I would become a doctor.
But in the 1860s, there was only one university in the country: the University of Copenhagen, and it only admitted male students.
Foto: Mænd på KU
All students at the University of Copenhagen were male as in this bunch of suits attending a lecture at the Applied Statistics Laboratory. Colourised photo: The Royal Danish Library.
That did not stop Nielsine, though. If American women could do it, so could she. And though it took some time to convince her father, she finally got permission to take the first step: move to the city.
In Copenhagen, a whole new chapter of her life began. She got a job as a teacher at a girls’ school, but focussed mainly on writing letters. She wrote letters to anyone who might have an idea of how she would be allowed into medical school.
She thus made contact with women in other countries who had studied medicine. For example, a female doctor in Sweden recommended that she contacted the mayor of Copenhagen, C. E. Fenger, who felt that women should be allowed to get an education. C. E. Fenger agreed to help Nielsine. The first thing she had to do to get into medical school was complete upper secondary school.
Foto: C E Fenger
Mayor C. E. Fenger helped Nielsine navigate the political circles of Copenhagen. Colourised photo: Royal Danish Library.
He contacted an old friend, Birch, who was headmaster of the Metropolitan School, and asked him and his staff to help me prepare for the exam. The project miscarried on account of their unwillingness
The headmaster and teachers at the Metropolitan School did not want to teach a woman. That turned out to be to Nielsine’s advantage, though. Because the next person C. E. Fenger reached out to was Ludvig Trier.
One day, in January, Nielsine entered Ludvig Trier’s small study and reading room in Bredgade in central Copenhagen. The afternoon light shone through the small, green window panes into a room cluttered with books and dusty cactuses.

Ludvig Trier came from a wealthy upper-class family and did not have to worry about money. Instead, he invested his time in teaching young lower-class men to help them get a degree. And he felt that young women should have the same opportunities as men.
It was as if I knew immediately that now my road ahead would be bright and passable. With this man as my instructor and soon-to-be friend, I worked diligently and enthusiastically.
Nielsine was Ludvig Trier’s first female student. And the day after their first meeting, she returned to Bredgade, where she would study Latin and later Danish and English.
Nielsine spent the next couple of years preparing for the upper secondary school leaving examination and convincing powerful people that it was a good idea to let a woman into medical school. That was easier said than done. Especially the doctors in Copenhagen were hard to win over.
First, she tried to convince a doctor named Dahlerup of her cause. He just shook his head and told her that it couldn’t be done.
Next, she tried her luck with a doctor Reizs, who wanted her to admit that she was simply being vain.
Edmund Hansen
And then came the eye specialist Edmund Hansen, who for some reason told Nielsine that she should not think that she was as clever as his sister, the wife of the Councillor of State (a grand title).
All these doctors (…) ensured me with a convincing sincerity and great stubbornness that when they so ardently advised against allowing women into medical school it was not for fear of competition. No, they merely loved their profession so much that they feared that the quality of its execution would deteriorate if women forced their way in.
Although these repeated rejections may have felt like a punch in the gut, Nielsine did not dwell on it. Instead she recalled how Dahlerup had extended his large, well-groomed hand and asked if she really had the courage to amputate.
I was slightly taken aback, but examined his hand and said with the greatest conviction: ‘Yes, if needs must.’ He quickly retracted his hand, and that was the end of our meeting. I later learned that he himself had never dared operate the scalpel.
Foto af kvindens plads i samfundet
The social norm at the time was that women belonged in the domestic sphere, and that applied to women from the bourgeoisie as well as the lower classes. But in Denmark and other parts of the world, women’s liberation movements had begun to emerge. They fought for women’s right to an education, work and financial independence. Painting: Wilhelm Bendz, National Gallery of Denmark.

Although Nielsine spent all her spare time studying for the exam, she could not help but hear about the women’s liberation movement – the fight for women’s rights. You would think that with her ambitions, Nielsine would be a supporter of the cause.

She was not.

At first, the cause vexed me, and I candidly and honestly declared that I would have nothing to do with it. I for my part wanted to become a doctor and had no intentions or sense of responsibility towards the ‘women’s liberation movement’.
Nevertheless, Nielsine was the perfect role model.
Foto af Marie Rovsing
One of the key figures in the women’s liberation movement in Denmark was Marie Rovsing. Colourised photo: Royal Danish Library.
Marie Rovsing, a leading figure in the women’s liberation movement, organised a meeting with Nielsine and offered to support her financially. This would enable Nielsine to quit her job and focus solely on her studies.

Even though she was not a fan of the ‘cause’, Nielsine accepted the offer. And after having been rejected by the headmaster and teachers at the Metropolitan School and three doctors, it must have felt good to have the support of the city’s cultural elite.

The next couple of years, Nielsine spent most of her waking hours studying. She did not remain Trier’s only female student, though. She was joined by three others who also aspired to become doctors.
I was full of energy. (…) I was a long way from home and my family therefore had no negative influence on me, and I had no social network.

With the help of Mayor Fenger, Nielsine posted her historic application for a place at the University of Copenhagen’s school of medicine to the Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs and Education on 22 January 1874. If her application was approved, it would not merely give Nielsine a place at the University of Copenhagen; it would give all women in the country a chance to apply for university.

But not everyone felt that was a good idea.

Mathias Saxtorph sidder i en sofa
Professor Mathias Saxtorph from the University of Copenhagen was opposed to the idea of admitting women to university. He believed it was contrary to nature. Colourised photo:
In response to Nielsine’s application, Professor of Medicine Mathias Saxtorph argued that “admitting women to university would not only conflict with the laws of nature, but also be to abandon all morals and decency.” In addition, he was “disgusted” by the very idea that a woman should “disregard all sense of decency in wanting to participate in lectures on the anatomy and diseases of the male body.” Fortunately, some doctors at the University of Copenhagen disagreed with Saxtorph. They even supported Nielsine’s application.
A year after sending the application, Nielsine got a reply – a reply which may have caused Professor Saxtorph to choke on his coffee. Section 1 of the royal decree read: “Women are hereby allowed to obtain an academic degree at the University of Copenhagen.”
Foto: Potræt af Nielsine
Nielsine at the edge of her chair with a book and glasses and a smile on her face. Age unknown. Colourised photo: Unknown photografher.
Nielsine, who was holidaying in Svendborg at the time, celebrated the good news – and the fact that she had just passed the first part of the upper secondary school leaving examination – with her family.
Now, considering the positive result, Father was quite proud of me; he may even have boasted slightly at my expense in the civic association.”
It was an important step forward for Nielsine – and for all women in the country. However, towards the bottom of the decree, the text read that women should not have access to financial support while studying for a degree – so they did not get full equality.
400 eyes. On her first day at university, Nielsine stepped into a lecture hall and was met by 200 male students. But she was not alone. Next to her was one of Trier’s other female students, Marie Gleerup.
The first time I entered the hall, I was somewhat thrilled; later, it came naturally to me.
At the University of Copenhagen, Nielsine got new friends – young men from Copenhagen-based families. She was invited into their homes for dinner parties, salon events and walks. Among others, she became a close friend of Rudolph Berg, whose family had a lot of interesting acquaintances.
Here I found an intellectual centre for some of the liberal-minded men of my age – zoologist, authors and artists.
Foto af kvindens plads i samfundet
Nielsine to the far, upper right. The person next to her is most likely her sister Laura. Ludvig Trier, Nielsine’s instructor and close friend, is the man in the centre of the photo touching his vest. Colourised photo: Royal Danish Library.

And then she goes on to namedrop everyone from social debater Georg Brandes to Skagen artist P. S. Krøyer. Nielsine became a regular guest in the cultural-radical circles of the capital. It must have been quite the change from her middle-class home in Svendborg.

Even though she developed a considerable social network, she still spent most of her time studying.

It was an intense period of my life. I felt as if someone had declared a state of emergency and I had to do well to prevent our opponents from gloating.
Nielsine wanted to prove those critical of women wrong. So she studied and studied.
I have often thanked my maker for giving me such good health, as I asked a lot of myself in those years: tutoring, hospitals, lectures and studying at home – often until the early hours of the morning
Foto af kommunehospitalet
The Copenhagen Municipal Hospital, where Nielsine worked as a trainee doctor while enrolled at the University of Copenhagen. Colourised photo: Medical Museion.
As part of the study programme, Nielsine had to work as a trainee doctor. First in the Women’s Prison at Christianshavn, later in the Copenhagen Municipal Hospital. Having just arrived, she was tested by Consultant Doctor Studsgaard:
On my first day, he tried to scare me, though he may also have been incited by a desire to embarrass me. Because the first thing he did was ask me to examine a female patient (…). Fortunately, I had some experience with the matter from working in the prison.
The quality of the instruction she received at the University of Copenhagen varied. It ranged from teachers who merely recited old textbooks to teachers who forgot to prepare or failed to show up for class. For example, one of her teachers often overslept:
He would come rushing down the wards in the morning, quite dazed after having slept in.
But she also had good teachers, including her instructor in chemistry:
My God, the chemical experiments and demonstrations worked like magic (…). I felt as if I was in my element.
Nielsine never gave her opponents a chance to gloat. She got several firsts and seconds. She even completed Mathias Saxtorph’s ceremonious instruction in surgery, which took place in a church. This made Nielsine the first woman in the country to get a degree in medicine on Friday 23 January 1885.
These last days of the examination period have been a pleasant experience to me, almost a joy; once I realised after receiving my first mark that it would not severely affect the final result if I should get low marks in the last three-four subjects, I began to considered the exams a sport.
Afterwards, though, she was exhausted and had to drag herself to the telegraph station to send a telegram to her father.
Afterwards I had to pay a visit to my motherly friend, Mrs. Rovsing, who was joyful and incredibly happy to hear my news.
Finally, she had to return to Ludvig Trier – her instructor, who in the meantime had become her close friend.
By now, I was completely exhausted and astonished to see the beautiful table brimming with oysters, partridges and wine.
Maleri af måltid
Still life painting by an unknown artist. Painting: Unknown artist, National Gallery of Denmark.
This is where we leave Nielsine – full, happy and tired after years of fighting to become Denmark’s first female academic.
Nielsine’s fight to become a GP was not over, though, far from it. Even though she had a degree and the women’s liberation movement had gained ground, many continued to be opposed to the idea of letting women into the labour market and educational system. After Nielsine had paved the way, more and more women were admitted to the University of Copenhagen, though. Eventually, Nielsine got her own practice in the city, and she remained a close friend of Ludvig Trier. Exactly 26 years after her last exam, he threw another party for her to celebrate her great achievement.
Nielsen og Trier
Nielsine Nielsen and Ludvig Trier. Colourised photo: Royal Danish Library.

Text and research:
Liva Polack

Graphics and development:
Frans Wej Petersen

Published on 8 March 2024



- Royal Danish Library

- "Nielsine Nielsen – Danmarks første kvindelige læge og akademiker" by Dorthe Chakravarty & Sarah Von Essen

- Læge Frk. Nielsine Nielsens erindringer (Doctor, Miss Nielsine Nielsen’s memoirs)

- Anna Cecilia Westerberg, who is related to Nielsine Nielsen, and who has shared private photos with us.