Solveig Jülich

Photographing Life and Death: Lennart Nilsson, Medicine and the Media in Sweden, 1940–2010

The purpose of the sabbatical is to finish a book manuscript on the famous photographs of Lennart Nilsson (1922–2017), with an international publisher. A sabbatical leave will also make it possible to benefit from and strengthen already existing international and national collaborations. During a research stay in the UK the project will especially draw on the expertise of colleagues at Cambridge University and University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. My book examines Nilsson’s photographs by placing them back in the historical context in which they were produced, circulated and reviewed. It tells, for the first time, the extraordinary story of how the work of Nilsson, medicine and the media in Sweden were intertwined in the process of transforming dead embryos, fetuses and body parts into spectacular visions of “life”. A central argument is that a number of commercial, professional, personal and other interests were involved and that an immense effort went into, not only making and selling the photographs, but also trying to control public knowledge about how the images were produced and what they showed. In this way, the book is part of a growing literature that has begun to analyze the shifting relationships between medicine and the media in different historical settings. In addition, it contributes to recent studies that have provided a longer historical perspective on the rise of “the public fetus”.
Final report
The main purpose of this sabbatical was to finalize a monograph in English on the career and photographic production of the Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson. Additionally, the intention was to capitalize on and strengthen international contacts and collaborations during a stay as visiting researcher in the UK.

The book project’s working title was ‘Photographing Life and Death: Lennart Nilsson, Medicine and the Media in Sweden, 1940-2010.’ Two significant changes have been made to the plan. Firstly, the study has focused more on Nilsson’s production of photographs of human embryos and fetuses. The book’s target audience is international, and therefore the images and their historical significance are of great interest. Nilsson’s images have been widely distributed in many countries, starting with the ‘Drama of Life before Birth’ published in the American magazine Life in 1965, and translations of A Child is Born. The photographs have been utilized in a variety of contexts, including anti-abortion propaganda, parental counseling, sex education, advertising, and Hollywood films. Unfortunately, over time, myths and misunderstandings have arisen regarding the images, with some believing that they depict living embryos and fetuses inside pregnant women’s bodies. However, the reality is that the majority of the photographed embryos and fetuses were deceased and captured in connection with abortions and other medical procedures. There is a significant need for more comprehensive knowledge regarding the creation of the images, including their historical context and underlying motives.

The second change is that I was given access to historical material of the photographer stored at Lennart Nilsson Photography. Previously, access to this archive was not possible for various reasons. The material turned out to be relevant, even crucial, to the study. It largely confirmed earlier findings, but letters and other documents provided more complete information about Nilsson’s relationships with picture agencies, magazines, publishers, and various medical organizations. The unpublished images of embryos and fetuses were crucial in establishing a new chronology of Nilsson’s work and understanding his methods and techniques. They also provided insight into the extent of human material used in the photography, as well as details of the medical research and abortion operations that the project was based on.

The new title of the publication is ‘Photographing Life before Birth: Lennart Nilsson and the Media-Medicine Complex in Twentieth Century Sweden.’ Previously published articles have been revised and, together with newly written material, compiled into a coherent manuscript for publication by an American publisher. The manuscript includes approximately 100 images by Nilsson, many of which have never been published before. The expected publication date is between 2024 and 2025. The book recounts the story of Nilsson’s unique photographic career and the creation of the renowned images of human fetal development in post-war Sweden. It relates the photographer’s work to what is referred to as the media-medical complex, demonstrating how various actors with different interests, efforts, and motives were involved in producing, marketing, and selling the images. The book highlights the expanding market for photographic images, abortion legislation and controversies, and medical research on aborted fetuses. Its findings make an original contribution to several fields of research. Specifically, it provides a historical contextualization and analysis of the interconnectedness of media and medicine in Sweden in the second half of the 20th century, contributing to media research on ‘biomedialization.’ Secondly, this research examines the representation and materialization of pregnancy, fetal development, and childbirth in Western visual culture, with a focus on Nilsson’s influential images. Thirdly, it analyzes the handling of the link between fetal images and legal abortions as a historical example of how different actors have interacted to limit and conceal sensitive and controversial knowledge.

Based on this international monograph project, I am currently finalizing a popular science book in Swedish about Lennart Nilsson and his images. The English version requires a tighter academic style and some restraint on details in the Swedish context. The popular science format provides the opportunity to develop a more vivid storytelling with fascinating episodes and images from Nilsson’s extraordinary career. This book is expected to be published by a Swedish publisher in 2025. Additionally, the RJ Sabbatical has enabled the finalization of other publications that cover related themes. The publication list includes several titles that were completed during this period and are relevant to the project in various ways.

During my sabbatical, I spent two months as a visiting researcher at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge. Professor Nick Hopwood provided feedback on my monograph project, and we collaborated on the edited volume, Rethinking the Public Fetus: Historical Perspectives on the Visual Culture of Pregnancy (University of Rochester Press, 2024). Additionally, I attended various departmental seminars and participated in discussions with colleagues about potential future collaborations.

The project and related topics were presented in various contexts, including a lecture series on the history of photography in Sweden aimed at a wider audience. Furthermore, I was interviewed for a documentary film about Lennart Nilsson produced by TIME magazine (not yet available).

My work has led to new research questions and projects. Specifically, my research on the ‘media-medical complex’ in relation to Lennart Nilsson’s photographs has helped to formulate questions about the management and governance of medical communication in a longer historical perspective. Currently, I am leading two projects related to this theme. The first research project, ‘Between Openness and Secrecy: Controlling Medical Communication in Twentieth Century Sweden,’ is funded by the Swedish Research Council (dnr 2022-01797). The ‘Communicating Medicine: Digitalisation of Swedish Medical Periodicals, 1781–2011 (SweMPer)’ is an infrastructure project funded by RJ (dnr IN22-0017). Its objective is to establish a database of historical medical and popular medical journals. This database will serve as a national resource for research and teaching in the humanities, social sciences, and medicine.
Grant administrator
Uppsala University
Reference number
SEK 1,287,000.00
RJ Sabbatical
History of Ideas