Eva Ekblad: The woman who brought potatoes, flour and alcohol to the people

The humble spud would go on to save Sweden from hunger, encourage alcoholism and power the industrial revolution

McDonald's crew member Samantha Medina prepares french fries as the McDonald's restaurant stock price reached record territory on April 25, 2017 in Miami, Florida
McDonald's crew member Samantha Medina prepares french fries as the McDonald's restaurant stock price reached record territory on April 25, 2017 in Miami, Florida

Potatoes might now be the humblest of all the foods. But it wasn't always that way.

Today Google's Doodle – which is visible all around the world – is celebrating the relatively unknown Eva Ekblad, the Swedish scientist who rescued the spud from being the rarefied preserve of the aristocracy and made it into the useful and common stuff we know today.

The potato first arrived in Sweden in 1658, relatively late in the process of its spread across Europe. And when it did, they stayed mostly in the greenhouses of the rich – when they were treated as food rather than a curiosity, it was to feed animals with.

Ekblad's work changed that, and helped contribute huge amounts to science at the same time. She showed that potato starch might not look like much but could be transformed into revolutionary stuff – it could be ground down into flour or used as a spirit.

That wasn't only exciting because it helped bring about potato vodka. It also helped save lives – her discovery showed that the potato could help reduce famine, and helped take the strain from cereals, like oats and barley, that were required to keep the country in food and alcohol.

It meant, for instance, that those cereals could be used to make things like bread rather than being reserved for making alcohol. That in turn helped potatoes be reserved for the creation of spirits, as well as improving the diet of the country.

That helped provide the country with the food it needed. But it also contributed to a run in alcohol, and encouraged a spike in its consumption in Sweden.

It would still take years for the potato to become the staple and common stuff that's now seen in everything from chips to spirits. But it was Ekblad's work that showed that it had the flexibility to be used in all kinds of products.

Her work with potatoes wasn't even limited to food. One of her important discoveries was that the dangerous cosmetics that were used at the time could have their more problematic ingredients replaced with potato flour.

All of that work helped elevate Ekblad to the Swedish National Academy of Science, the first ever woman to do so. But she wasn't allowed to be a full member because of her gender, and it doesn't appear that she took part in the academy's proceedings.

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