Acharius Medallists

Aino Henssen

The Acharius Medal is an award to lichenologists who carry on the tradition of Acharius with excellent work on lichens. There are, of course, many prominent lichenologists who would be eligible for this honor and whoever is chosen will receive this medal as a representative of all the great scientists who would deserve it. I would like to propose Prof. Dr. Aino Henssen and as her first graduate student I have the pleasure of giving a brief synopsis of her life and work.

However, I feel that a mere account of her curriculum vitae with information on her date and place of birth, her academic career, etc. is rather dull. You all know Aino as one of our most prominent lichenologists. You know that she retired last year from her professorial appointment and this implies that you know her age. You are quite familiar with the fact that she knows everything about fruit body development, about the little black lichens and about other things, such as Actinomycetes, as well.

Aino Henssen obtained her doctoral degree in Marburg in 1953 with a work on Lemnaceae, not on the taxonomy but on the physiology. I do not think that she liked this work that much. On our many field-trips I cannot remember that she ever so much as glanced at a single Lemna. In Marburg she had already become interested in cryptogams but she turned to her special field of interest during the following years when she worked in Finland, Sweden and Canada. She always told me that she became a lichenologist in Uppsala and it is perhaps fitting that she should receive this medal here in Sweden.

So this was the starting point of her many excellent publications but one has to do more to get a medal and to be honored by this international family of lichenologists. This "more" is best explained by some reminiscences from the time when I was a student in her research group.

At that time it was the practice that students of biology attended half-day fieldtrips every Saturday - looking at higher plants in Summer and cryptogams in Winter, the latter meaning mosses. At the beginning of one winter term it was announced that the field-trips would be given by a new member of staff, called Aino Henssen. As we had never come across the first name "Aino", we did not know that she was a woman, a not unusual mistake – as Aino likes to explain. Perhaps, with her permission, I may borrow one of her favorite stories. At that time she received a letter from the prominent Dutch lichenologist Maas-Geesteranus addressed to Herr Dr. Aino Henssen- In her reply she explained that Aino is a female Finnish first name, with the result that Maas Geesteranus said to his wife: "How strange, this Herr Doctor Henssen has a female Finnish first name". Retrospectively, we students may be forgiven for not knowing this either. It also shows that very few women were to be found at universities at the time and how difficult it must have been for her to become accepted.

Anyway, before the first field-trip, Aino was presented to us by Professor von Stosch. He told us that she would introduce us to the lichens. Nobody had any idea what a lichen looked like as there are not too many lichens in Germany. Aino had with her a large basket from which she took all the tools necessary for hunting lichens – a hammer and chisel, a saw and two very large knives. From that we concluded that lichens could possibly be dangerous.

Let me be serious: it took only two or three excursions to get everyone more than interested. The enthusiasm shown by Aino infected all of us and we enjoyed these field-trips more than any other we had followed; and perhaps not surprisingly, we did learn a great deal. At the end of the term I asked her about studying with her. I feel that it is this enthusiasm for lichenology and the ability to transmit it to others which is one of Aino's outstanding characteristics and it is precisely this enthusiasm which makes her a deserving recipient of the medal.

For all those who do not only want anecdotes – here are some facts: 1925 – born in Elberfeld, Germany; 1953 – Doctoral degree at Marburg University; 1953–54 Institut für Obstbau, Universität Bonn; 1954–56 – Institut für Bakteriologie Berlin (first studies on Actinomycetes); 1956 – Botanical Institute, Helsinki; 1957–61 Scholarship from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft and the Helene Lange Stiftung (work on lichens in Uppsala and Marburg); 1961–63 – Scholarship from the American Association of University Women and the Canadian Government (work in USA and Canada); 1963 – Curator (for cryptogams), Botanisches Institut Marburg; 1965 – Habilitation in Systematic Botany; 1970 – Professor in Marburg; 1990 – Retirement. Aino Henssen has published 100 scientific papers and books and collected about 60,000 specimens of lichens for her herbarium.

H. M. Jahns

back to Acharius Medallists