Professor Letten F. Saugstad (1925-2014)
Professor Letten F. Saugstad was born in Oslo, Norway, on 7 September 1925. During the Second world war she was a refugee in Sweden and graduated from high school in Uppsala in 1944. She went on to study psychology in Stockholm 1944-45, in Copenhagen 1945-46, and in Aberdeen 1946-47. In 1951 she graduated with an MD from the University of Oslo and in 1975 she obtained a PhD from the same university. Her thesis was entitled “Phenylketonuria, population genetics and neuropediatrics”. She was appointed Professor in Biological psychology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim.
Letten F. Saugstad has written more than 150 publications in international, peer reviewed journals. Her work spans a number of topics and disciplines, from studies on HIV/AIDS and sudden infant death syndrome, to treatises on mental illnesses, nutrition and human development. She wrote papers on drug and alcohol abuse, toxicology, and air and water pollution. She was ahead of her time in exploring the roles of epigenetics and of environmental risk factors in neurological conditions such as schizophrenia and neurodegenerative disease. One of her favorite subjects was the multifarious effects of marine fat on human health and development.
Letten moved successfully from one topic to another. She did so, not because of a sudden shift in her interest, but because she identified new connections between fields previously thought to be independent and unrelated. She identified and explored novel links between nutrition and disease, between pollution and health, between human development and mental disorders. Her original observations and reflections spawned new hypotheses and insights that will continue to inspire. Letten stood as a modern polyhistor – a mind with a grasp of many scientific disciplines and with an ability to connect these disciplines in new and unexpected ways. She connected many dots in seemingly disparate fields, and she did so with an ingenuity and creativity that command respect. With the growing specialization of science, polyhistors are an endangered species. Most scientists do not venture out of their comfort zones. Letten was a rare exception.
Underlying the entire breadth of Letten’s scholarship was her vision on human health. She firmly believed that current approaches to medicine and health are too narrow and that insight in biology have to be complemented by a proper understanding of human development and environment and the multitude of risk factors that lie outside of our genetic code. Deeply embedded within her vision on health was a strong social engagement. She saw it as her mission to work for a better health for all – across geographical and cultural boundaries, and across generations. With the health of future generations in mind she was a fervent advocate for sustainable health care. In Letten’s mind, education was key to sustainability – hence her eagerness to support PhD education, not least in Africa and in other parts of the world in dire need of medical competence.
As a polyhistor, Letten would have embraced the complexity and challenges of UN’s Agenda 2030 and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
Letten was in a privileged position: she could realize her vision by drawing on her own intellect and scholarship, but also by drawing on the intellect and scholarship of others. She established the Letten Foundation that over the years has provided financial support to a number of projects aimed at improving human health worldwide. Letten did double duty. She worked to the benefit of human health, not only as a scholar but also as a benefactor.
Sponsored by the Letten Foundation, The Letten Center for Brain Research was established at the University of Oslo. This has developed into a leading research environment for the analysis of glial cell biology – a special interest of Letten’s. In addition, Institute Pasteur, Imperial College, and many other institutions and countless researchers have benefited from funding from Letten Foundation. Since 2001, the Foundation, together with the University of Oslo, has built up sustainable research centers in Africa (Zimbabwe, Tanzania) and Asia. The motto has been “Better education and health” and help with self-help. Over 75 local fellows have obtained their doctoral or master’s degrees thanks to the Letten Foundation.
Letten F. Saugstad was privileged by her intellect and her prosperity – yet she felt disadvantaged, and rightly so. Like many women in her generation, she experienced that her skills and qualifications failed to receive due recognition by the contemporary academic community. This is what she writes in her Foreword to her collected works: “It is disappointing to be very well qualified and to finish your working life without having been employed in any full-time position where your qualifications were appropriate and appreciated. I am surprised that my part-time jobs challenged me to be as creative as I in fact have been.”
Letten felt disadvantaged, but she did not turn to bitterness and resentment. Rather, her feeling of being disadvantaged fueled her engagement for an equitable and just society. For this we should all be grateful. Her legacy will prevail, and her legacy will help safeguard health for future generations.
Now the Letten Prize has been established, in recognition of Letten’s contributions to human health and in the conviction that her focus on health, environment and equality in all aspects of human life is key to a sustainable development and a better future for all.
Written by Prof. Ole Petter Ottersen.