Eva Ekeblad, the Woman Who Reinvented the Potato

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While you may have never heard the name Eva Ekeblad, you’ve almost certainly come across her major contribution to humanity: getting people smashed out of their gourds.

Ekeblad—the subject of today's Google Doodle project, which acknowledged important figures in history—was one of the first people to understand how potatoes could be used to make both flour and alcohol at a time when they weren't even considered fit for human consumption.

Ekeblad, born in Sweden in 1724, had heard some Germans had managed to make alcoholic drinks from the vegetable. In 1746, she began growing her own potatoes, experimenting and figuring out that when they were cooked, smashed, and dried, she could make flour. The discovery led to her being admitted to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences—unheard of for a woman of the era.

While this discovery helped solve Sweden’s troublesome food shortages, it also allowed for some enterprising types to capitalize on the fact that the dried vegetable could be distilled for spirits including vodka. With oats, rye, and barley now free to feed people and famine no longer considered a widespread concern, this led to a marked spike in alcohol consumption across Northern Europe. The vegetable, once found only in the aristocratic houses, evolved into the common spud.

Ekeblad’s achievement is all the more impressive when you consider she could have easily relegated herself to a life of leisure. Raised among nobility—her father was statesman Count Magnus Julius de la Gardie—she married Count Claes Claesson Ekeblad at the age of 16 and set about managing the family’s properties. Working in the castle kitchen as an agronomist—someone who studies the uses for plants—she toiled on the potato before submitting her findings to the Academy in 1746.

While Ekeblad, who died in 1786, remains a standout member of her family tree, she may have been outdone by her sister-in-law, Catherine Charlotte De la Gardie, who helped popularize use of the smallpox vaccine.