Frida Eversmann, first female agricultural engineer

Frida Eversmann (1890-1941) was the first Dutch female agricultural engineer (1919) and an inspiring scientific assistant. She was able to combine this with groundbreaking social work till she ran into an integrity conflict. Last November, the Marina van Damme Fund put her in the spotlights with a short biography and a memorial tree in the Enschede botanical garden. Frida marks the start of a new series on Wageningen women of the past, to let their lives inspire us today.

Frida Eversmann (1890-1941) graduated while making her career as an inspiring scientific assistant at the Agricultural Chemistry Laboratory of Prof. ir. J.H. Aberson. In addition to the supervision of many students, she published her research in cooperation with Aberson and as lead author in her own right. However, she ran into a long-lasting conflict with his successor, Prof.ir. J. Hudig. She questioned his scientific integrity and conduct towards another female staff member through a formal complaint. Ultimately, Frida was promoted to another position.

1920s: secretary Catholic student association Franciscus Xavier
1920s: secretary Catholic student association Franciscus Xavier

Her wholehearted engagement with social work outside WUR is likewise inspiring. She combined committee work with passionate and well-informed columns and lectures in support of female students and graduates, as well as farm women and their daughters. She passed away early from cancer at the age of 50 in 1941.

Godefrida Anna Alida (Frida) Eversmann was born 2 December 1890 in Amsterdam. Her father, originally from Germany, received the Dutch nationality in 1888. He became succesful in the retail of fine textiles. Frida started her professional studies in Wageningen after 2.5 years of boarding school with the Ursuline Sisters in Venray and 5 years at the HBS (high school) in The Hague. In 1914, she received her degree in agricultural chemistry at Wageningen. Immediately after graduation, she started working at one of the State Experimentation Stations, the one for fertiliser research at Maastricht.

Scientific assistant to Prof. J.H. Aberson

One year later, 1 October 1915, she returned to Wageningen as assistant to lecturer J.H. Aberson. While Aberson got heavily involved in upgrading the Agricultural College to a higher education institute in 1918, Frida became his right hand in supervising students and running the Laboratory. By taking special exams for former graduates in 1919, Frida became the first female agricultural engineer, specialised in agricultural chemistry. She published papers about the laboratory and field experiments, among others on peat-colonial oat disease, both in cooperation with Aberson and as a lead author in her own right. Later citations did not always do justice to her contributions, however.

The greenhouse at the Wageningen Eng
The greenhouse at the Wageningen Eng

Proof of the appreciation and respect she enjoyed can be found in the farewell festivities for Aberson when he retired in 1928. She gave a speech on behalf of the Laboratory staff, in which she graciously recalled how Aberson inspired all to develop their interests, as well as his fatherly support, even in private matters.

Frida’s social engagement

In addition to her scientific work, Frida showed herself as a highly engaged woman in Catholic matters, especially concerning female students and graduates as well as farm women and their daughters. She was a strong networker in her committee work with the Wageningen Circle of Chemists and Catholic Student Association KSV Franciscus Xaverius up to her pioneer activities for Catholic women students and graduates as well as for catholic farm women and their daughters. Her name frequently appeared in announcements of lectures and presentations, and under columns and essays. Generally, she signed with l.i., being a Dutch abbreviation for agricultural engineer.

Retreat 1922 (arrow points at Frida, back row)
Retreat 1922 (arrow points at Frida, back row)

Retreats were a distinct way to organise get-togethers for Catholics. She excelled as key organiser and point of contact for annual retreats of Catholic female students and graduates at least from 1926 to 1940. The In Memoriam published by the Catholic female graduates organisation Sleutelbos highly praised Frida for all her social work. Her contribution to the establishment of the Catholic Farm Women’s Unions and the expansion of courses and farm women’s participation in both agricultural and farm household management education is particularly memorable.

‘Quaestie Hudig – Eversmann’

Frida’s life took a definite turn after Aberson’s retirement. His successor Prof. ir. J. Hudig was eager to renovate the Laboratory to modern standards and to connect more with commercial parties. Coming from the State Experimental Station of Groningen, Hudig strived to open research to the wider circle of stakeholders in agricultural practices. He was unable to bring about fundamental change due to crisis cutbacks, so he built a private laboratory at his premises. It is not exactly clear why, but it appeared from Hudig’s later complaints that he lacked the support of his staff.

Integrity accusations

Frida apparently wanted to leave in 1932, as she volunteered to be fired with financial compensation, a measure implemented to fight the cutbacks. However, Hudig refused to back her up. He argued that he could not hire a new person with sufficient experience for the reduced salary allocated. Finally, Frida expressed her dissatisfaction with Hudig. She accused him of misconduct towards a female staff member and of compromising research outcomes and state finances in his commercial research and private laboratory. The investigation reports of the Senate and Ministry were sealed for a long time, but were recently well described in Frida’s short biography by Marina van Damme and Klaske Koopmans, which we translated into English.

Long-lasting investigation

Witnesses were heard, and a financial audit executed. However, we see a lot of reluctance to act. Both persons had made their mark and deserved respect. In the end, we do not see any references to the accusation of misconduct towards the female staff member, although the family of Frida still recalls her saying he kissed her. The audit did not show any financial discrepancies, but it also mentioned that only the accounts of the commercial companies could exclude any doubt. These were not available, however.

After a temporary posting in 1935, Frida got honourable discharge from her position at WUR in 1939 and promotion to a more managerial position in Wageningen at the overarching CILO, which was in charge of the State Experimentation and Research Institutes. She also received all the money of the salary raises she had missed during the time of conflict.

Less social work and early death

The period of conflict and crisis may have impacted her severely, as there are hardly any signs of her social work after Aberson’s retirement. Pictures and family tell she found much comfort in hiking, especially in Switzerland. Only some years after the conflict was settled, Frida was hospitalised in the St. Maartenskliniek near Nijmegen. While treated for cancer, she managed to keep on working part-time for a while, as is shown by the physician report to WUR. The In Memoriam of the Sleutelbos recalls her being surrounded by papers and notes during this last period. Finally, she passed away from this terminal disease on 12 November 1941, at the age of 50.

As a Catholic feminist, in 1927, she wondered why women would not be able to perform all sorts of jobs in fair competition with men; her Sleutelbos peers remembered her as a pioneer who chose for a non-feminine profession and combined it with great feminine social leadership.