Michalina Stefanowska (1855-1942)

Autor: Krystyna Makowska
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Michalina Stefanowska (1855-1942),

Portrait of Michalina Stefanowska

Michalina Stefanowska was born on November 20, 1855 in Grodno (then in the Russian Empire, in the years 1918-1939 in Poland and now in Belarus). She was the first daughter of Joanna Sienkiewicz and Ferdynand Marcin Stefanowski. In 1872 she graduated from girl’s high school in Grodno and shortly after, being only 17 years old she stared her first work as a nature and geography teacher at the Augustyna Berlach Girls' school in Łódź [1,2]. After 11 years she finished her teaching career and, thanks to the Raperswil scholarship (as the second woman to receive such an award), she started her studies of nature and zoology with K. Vogel and H. Fol in Geneva. She obtained a doctorate for her work in natural sciences in 1889. Her doctoral thesis included research and discoveries on the physiology of changes in the retina of compound eyes in arthropods for which she received Humphry Davy’s award [2]. In 1891, due to the restrictions placed on women in scientific development she decided to went to France where she continued her education studying biology, biology, psychology and psychiatry in Paris until 1897.

During her studies, she completed internships in hospitals for the mentally ill - Salpetriere and St. Anna - and conducted scientific research on the effects of medical chemicals such as nicotine or alcohol on the lymphatic system of vertebrates. In the same time she edited and translated three popular science works from French into Polish: Heaven by C. Flammarion [3] and two volumes of Earthly Phenomena by E. Reclus [4].

In 1897 she received an invitation of the director of the newly established Physiological Institute to continue her scientific research in Solvaya at the Free University of Brussels [5]. She took that possition and a year later, her friend Józefa Joteyko who she have met during her studies in Geneva joined her to work at the institute. For the next 10 years, the scientists were inseparable - living and working together [6]. At that time, they were the only women employed in research positions at the Institute. Two women worked primarily on solving the psychophysics and psychophysiology of pain and anesthesia (using ether and chloroform) of muscles, nerves and nerves. There ambitious work resulted in a number of publications in the field of basic neurology, psychoneurology and experimental psychology. The work summarizing the results of the Brussels research Psychophysiologie de la douleur from 1903 was awarted by the Academy of Sciences in Paris [5].

In 1903 she obtained a habilitation in general physiology in Geneva becoming a first female docent [6]. She worked at the university also as a physiology teacher.

Michalina Stefanowska in 1908

In 1908 she decided to return to Poland where she gave lectures on the physiology of the nervous system and senses at the Faculty of Humanities (1908–1912) of the Society of Scientific Courses in Warsaw[1]. She is an author of several publications on school pedagogy [7].

The three most outstanding Polish women in science at the beginning of the 20th century: Skłodowska Curie, Joteyko and Stefanowska. Jornal “Bluszcz” 27.12.1908 (https://bcul.lib.uni.lodz.pl/dlibra/publication/100243/edition/90329/content)