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Emma Hjorth (1858–1921)

Emma Hjorth was a pioneer in the care of intellectually disabled people, and in 1898, she established Norway’s first institution for the so-called “uneducable mentally deficient”, later known as Emma Hjorths Hjem. Emma made the uneducable and their families her life’s mission. With unwavering dedication and a passion for society’s weakest, she reformed Norway’s health care sector.

Lippestad and Hjorth families 

Emma Alethe Andreasdatter Lippestad was born on Søndre Leppestad in the Municipality of Hobøl in Østfold (see photo below) on 21 May 1858, as the sixth of seven siblings. The farm was of medium size, and the children worked on the farm alongside their parents, Andreas Lippestad and Gunnhild Johannesdatter.  

Little is known about Emma’s childhood, but the church record from her confirmation specifies that she was “highly knowledgeable and commendably studious”. She was a gifted girl and distinguished herself as the only one in her class earning such good marks. 

Emma’s eldest brother, Johan Anton Lippestad, was also a bright boy and first in line to inherit the farm. His dream was to get an education, however, and not to become a farmer. His father went to the dean and asked whether it was appropriate for a farmer to have “ambitions beyond his station”. The dean said no, but the community’s new parish clerk supported Johan and convinced his father to let him pursue an education. Johan trained as a teacher and found employment at Balchens Institutt for Døve (a school for the deaf), where Hans Hansen, another teacher, worked. In 1874, the two men founded Eftermiddagsskolen for Aandelig Abnorme Børn at Vestheim in Oslo. This became the first specialist school for children with intellectual disabilities in Norway. In 1878, their little school had expanded, and they split it up, each continuing on separately. Hansen cared for the boys and later acquired the Lindern farm, which he turned into a school for boys. Johan acquired the Thorshaug farm in Oslo and moved there with all the girls. The school was named the Thorshaug Institut for Aandelig Abnorme Pigebørn, later renamed Torshov skole and Torshov kompetansesenter. He ran the school until 1904, when he became the director of "Abnormskolevesenet", Norway’s national education programme for children with disabilities. 

Prior to 1874, no organized education or care was provided in Norway to so-called mentally deficient children, as they were called back then. In some cities, dedicated teachers provided some education to individual children. Most lived at home with their families, in the country some were at the mercy of charitable aid for the poor, and in larger cities some ended up in the almshouse. Some were probably also housed with mentally ill people. 

Johan’s choice of profession and field had a huge impact on the development of a field of care for the mentally deficient in Norway, and he also seems to have had a considerable influence on all of his siblings. Six of the seven Lippestad siblings would come to work with people with intellectual disabilities at Thorshaug. The Lippestad family therefore became hugely influential on the development of this entire care sector. 

The Thorshaug school became a family enterprise, including the Hjorth family. Since the very beginning, Jeanette Hjorth was a teacher at the school, and her sisters, Hilda and Alette, also worked there. Hilda later became the matron at Fru Hjorths Pleiehjem. Their brother was Ingvar Magnus Olsen Hjorth (1862–1927), an architect, who led the construction of the Thorshaug school and whom Emma married in 1890. Ingvar was a leading architect of his day, and he was awarded the Knight 1st Class of the Royal Norwegian Order of Saint Olaf in 1908. He designed and built several of the buildings at Thorshaug, as well as at Fru Hjorths Pleiehjem, but these were unfortunately later demolished. 

Emma and Ingvar had a son, Gunnar, in 1896, who sadly passed away in 1926, only 29 years old. After completing his university entrance exams, he worked in his father’s architect firm for a while, but he went against his father’s wishes and became a painter. He studied at the Academy of Fine Art in Oslo and several years in Paris. He was frequently featured in the National Art Exhibition and also held a solo exhibition in oslo. Many of his paintings are owned by his son, architect Ola Petter Hjorth (b. 1921). Ola Petter has several children and grandchildren. 

Education and career 

In 1879, Emma completed the advanced teacher examinations in Kristiania (Oslo). She had acquired all the knowledge required on her own, because teacher education programmes did not admit women yet at that time. Later that year, she started working as a teacher at Thorshaug, a job she held until 1903, five years after opening her care home. In 1883, at the age of 25, she won a grant, which she used to go study abroad in America, where she spent a year in institutions for the mentally deficient in Philadelphia and Boston. Back then, America was very far away, and knowledge of foreign languages was usually limited. She must have been quite proficient in English in order to benefit from her stay, and she had to have been a quite courageous lady to embark on such a long journey by herself. She later made several study trips to Europe, including Germany in 1910, when she brought home a straitjacket that was “much more favourable” than what they had previously used. 

In 1892, a new law was enacted, regulating schools for children with physical and intellectual disabilities, which made it difficult for “uneducable mentally deficient” to enrol in school. As opposed to the other Nordic countries, Norway did not have any institutions for the uneducable at this time. There were no assistive measures, children and adults were locked up or hidden away, and the situation was dire for many families. Emma was passionate about improving the situation for the mentally deficient and their families, and she decided to found a home for the uneducable.  

She founded Fru Hjorths Pleie- og Arbeidshjem for Dannelsesudygtige Aanssvage, a “care and work home for the uneducable mentally deficient”, at Sjøvolden in Asker (see photo above) in 1898. She bought the property for NOK 8 000. After six months, she moved the home to Solvang in Asker, which she rented, and in 1903, she bought Tokerud farm in Bærum at a foreclosure auction for NOK 63,000. She moved 34 residents there. The institution remained here until it closed in 1996. 

Emma did not work in the care home herself. Instead, she remained head mistress at Thorshaug for another five years. Later, she kept an office in Oslo, where she managed the administration, raised funds and did the bookkeeping. 

Emma gifted the institution to the State in 1915, but stayed in touch with it through her work in the audit committee. The last years of her life, she dedicated to her work in the Oslo chapter of Hjemmenes Vel, an association for women and families. She was one of its directors, organized many courses for young women and was a well-respected person. 

A fundraising pioneer 

In 1897, Emma started fundraising to found her care home. Her first donor was Architect Barnholt, who donated 50 øre. Initially, she contacted a wide range of prominent men and asked for a letter of recommendation. In 1898/99, she organized the first big lottery: a tombola held on Stortorvet, Oslo’s grand plaza. The tombola went on for two months and brought in NOK 33,829.54. This was an enormous sum back then, when an annual salary was just a few hundred kroner. 

From then until 1914, she continued her fundraising work, organizing lotteries and concerts, securing endowments and applying for grants from various businesses and local and regional authorities. She wrote letters to select gentlemen and ladies asking for donations and contributions, including to every pastor’s wife in the country, imploring them to found women’s associations. In 1905, she applied to Norges Bank (Norway’s central bank), for a permit to “erect stands outside the bank during the royal procession”. She got her permit, erected the stands in 8 days, and “to a good outcome”. She likely raised funds by having spectators pay for a place in the stands. With these funds, she created “Dronning Mauds legat”, a trust bearing the name of Queen Maud. Unconfirmed sources say the Queen contributed NOK 800 to the trust. The intention of the trust was to cover the cost of accommodation for those who did not have any family or municipal support to pay for their stay at the care home. The funds raised were enough to acquire the properties in Asker and Bærum, restoration and construction, and the acquisition of furniture and fittings. Operational costs were covered by the fees paid by families or poor relief. In cases where neither the family nor local authorities could pay, the trust covered the cost of the stay for many. 

All in all, this speaks to the considerable effort, ingenuity and dedication of one powerful lady. She had to have been one of Norway’s most successful fundraisers through the ages. 

From success to criticism 

From reading about the care home when it was still owned by Emma, one gets the impression that the standards were high, for its day. The care regimen emphasized help with meals, all forms of punishment were prohibited (remember, this was the age of the cane), and “the staff’s first and last thought must always be the children’s good care and well-being.” Their clothes had to be in order, they could not go without shoe laces, and the children were not allowed to spend too long on the toilet. There are reports of trips, small parties, singing games, 17 May celebrations and Christmas celebrations. Mortality rates remained low, but compared to today’s standards, staffing levels were very low. All those who were able to use their hands for work were trained to work in the house or in the fields. Not all of the residents were useful, but that was not important. For those who were worst off, song and music were central activities. 

With modern eyes, it is difficult to know how good the care home was, especially because it was the only one of its kind in the entire country. From 1910 and in the years that followed, the home became the subject of much criticism in the press, especially in Socialdemokraten. Socialists in Parliament were the primary source of this criticism. They wanted the State to assume responsibility for the care of the disabled, and it would seem that they used Mrs. Hjorth’s Care Home as a tool to promote their agenda. At the same time, criticism was also directed at the home’s matron, Emma’s sister-in-law, Hilda Lied. She was accused of treating the residents badly, of not feeding them enough and withholding medical treatment. It is difficult to assess the content of this criticism today, but these complaints became a central argument in the politicians’ fight for public care. 

Emma had already said, back in 1907, that when her institution was large enough and well-managed enough, she would gift it to the State. She did not make an effort to defend herself against allegations, but the complaints against her and the care home were likely a contributing factor to her gifting it to the State as early as 1914. At the time, the care home consisted of 17 buildings, 20 hectares of fields, three large gardens and approx. 50 hectares of forests and grazing ground, with a total value of NOK 317,577.25. The mortgage on the property was NOK 21,000. 

On 1 July 1915, responsibility for the operation of the care home passed to the director of the national educational programme for children with disabilities. The home was now government property, but parents and local authorities still covered operational costs. Jens Hole was hired as the head of the home, a role he stayed in until 1946. The next 30 years would be characterized by poverty, decline, overcrowded buildings and an extremely high mortality rate. 

Emma had four conditions for turning her care home over to the State. The first condition was that “The above-specified property or monetary value in the event of a sale, must always be used for a care and work home for the mentally deficient”. The second condition was that the care home must always bear her name. For some time from 1948, the home was called Statens hjem for åndssvake, but it was later renamed Emma Hjorths Hjem, which it was called until it closed in 1996. These conditions had a huge impact through the years. 

In connection with her gift, Emma was awarded the King’s Medal of Merit in gold for her efforts. 

There is no doubt that Emma was an unusually hard-working and dedicated person, who had a considerable impact on society. A neighbourhood in Bærum now bears her name, and many Norwegians know her name, because the institution she founded became a cornerstone in the care for people with intellectual disabilities. 

Emma died on 2 July 1921, aged 63, of unknown causes. She was buried in Vestre gravlund in Oslo. 


Photo from www.lokalhistoriewiki.no

Source of information: Emma Hjorth museum