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The first lady

Monumental — Inge Lehmann never received the same recognition at home in Denmark that she did abroad. Now, the woman who discovered that the Earth has a solid core has become the first woman has been given the place she deserves alongside the University of Copenhagen’s most towering figures

The size of the crowd packing Ceremonial Hall gives it away: this no ordinary Monday. So too, does the character of those on hand. Among the speakers at the day’s event: Prorector Lykke Friis; Søren Pind, the higher education and science minister; GEUS seismologist Trine Dahl-Jensen, professor Dorthe Dahl-Jensen, Niels Bohr Institute; and professor Hanne Andersen, Centre for Science Education.

They are all present as part of the university’s efforts to honour Inge Lehmann, the Danish geophysicist who, in a 1936 article titled simply “P”, argued that the Earth’s core was solid, and not, as previously believed, molten. For that discovery, Lehmann, who died in 1993, is being honoured with a monument, fashioned by Danish sculptor Elisabeth Toubro, on Frue Plads, in front of the main building.

The first lady

Outside Denmark, Lehman’s research made her famous, and she was the recipient of some of her field’s highest awards, including the American Geophysical Union’s Bowie Medal. In Denmark she remains mostly unknown, a fact that Friis, in her address, suggested was all too common when it came to women in science.

“Look to the left,” she said pointing to the frieze depicting Denmark’s greatest science minds. “There’s HC Ørsted. Look right. There’s Tycho Brahe. Outside, there’s a bust of Niels Bohr. But you’ll find no woman, neither hanging here on these walls nor memorialised outside. That’s a shame, and it’s high time the most prestigious place on campus gets its first lady. Elisabeth Toubrou’s work is an appropriate monument to not just Inge Lehmann, but also to her lifelong passion for science.”

Part-time scientist

Lehmann was born in 1888, the daughter of a psychology professor. She earned a master’s in maths, and later, as an employee at the University of Copenhagen, helped to set up a seismic monitoring station in Denmark and two in Greenland. She neither married nor had children; her life was devoted to science.

You will never know how many incompetent men I have unsuccessfully competed against

Geophysicist Inge Lehmann

Lehmann’s position with the university was administrative, rather than scientific, so her research was done in her spare time. Eventually, she became the head of the Geodetic Institute, a position she held until 1953. Although she remained an administrative employee and was responsible for maintaining the seismographs, she managed to publish 36 papers in her career.

Being allowed to conduct research, even part-time, was a life-long struggle for Lehmann.

“You will never know how many incompetent men I have unsuccessfully competed against,” she wrote in one letter to a nephew.

Tough lady

In the 1950s, Lehmann was invited to the US to help identify how seismic activity could reveal details about Soviet atomic testing. Later, she was awarded an honorary doctorate from Columbia, and was made an associate of the British Royal Astronomical Society. Even in her retirement, she continued working in the US. And while was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Copenhagen at the age of 80, she died, aged 104, having never been recognised with a professorship.

Trine Dahl-Jensen met Lehmann in 1991, when she received a travel grant created in her name. She recalls that there were a number reasons why Danes never gave Lehmann the recognition she was due.

In addition to her 1936 finding, she also contributed to the establishment of seismologic measuring stations in Denmark and Greenland. She’s an important role model for geophysicists.

Trine Dahl-Jensen, seismologist

“She was a tough lady,” Dahl-Jensen says. “She was an introvert. She was a nerd who was interested in earthquakes and seismology. But, she never taught, so few people ever learned about her work. Whenever I lecture about earthquakes or seismology, I make sure to mention her.”

Lehmann’s research remains relevant to geophysics to this day, both abroad and, finally, at home, according to Dahl-Jensen.

“It means a lot that Denmark has had an internationally recognised seismologist. In addition to her 1936 finding, she also contributed to the establishment of seismologic measuring stations in Denmark and Greenland. She’s an important role model for geophysicists.”

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