In Memory Of Lennart Levi, 1930-2024

Professor emeritus Lennart Levi has passed away at the age of 93. He is survived by his wife Inger and sons Richard and Ragnar and their families. Töres Theorell and Jan Palmblad, both professors emeriti at Karolinska Institutet, write an obituary of Sweden’s first professor of psychosocial environmental medicine, specialising in occupational medicine.

Lennart Levi was born in Riga and arrived in Sweden as a teenager with his parents. During his school years he acted, wrote articles and competed in rhetoric – a skill that he later found useful as a researcher, lecturer, advisor and member of the Riksdag.

As a newly graduated doctor from Karolinska Institutet, Lennart delved deeper into psychiatry, internal medicine and rehabilitation. He soon lay the groundwork for a multidisciplinary, unconventional and innovative research programme on stress, inspired by Canadian physiologist Hans Selye, who coined the term.

In a series of experiments, he studied biological responses to various situations, such as assembly line work under time pressure and enforced insomnia and the viewing of films depicting violence. Nobel Laureate Ulf von Euler, who demonstrated the role of adrenalin and noradrenalin in stress, encouraged him to start his own analyses of hormone responses to acute or chronic stress, studies that he eventually extended to include the effects on the immune and cardiovascular systems. Lennart Levi also led an army medicine research group that studied, amongst other things, the effects of fasting.

An important inspiration for many, not least us of a younger generation, was Lennart’s series of international conferences in Stockholm on the theme of Society, Stress and Disease.

In 1978, Lennart Levi was appointed professor of psychosocial environmental medicine, specialising in occupational medicine, with a seat at Karolinska Institutet, making him Sweden’s first professor in the field. From 1980 to 1995 he headed up the then newly established National Institute of Psychosocial Environmental Medicine, at which studies were conducted into psychosocial factors and health with a focus on sleep, working environment and unemployment.

He was advisor in his field for various UN bodies and the EU. He was voted into the Swedish parliament in 2006 as its oldest member and was an authoritative voice in the socio-ethical debate, at home and abroad.

We researchers mourn the loss of a visionary.

By Professors emeriti Töres Theorell och Jan Palmblad, Karolinska Institutet

Lennart Levi: a life in brief

  • Lennart Levi started his medical studies at Karolinska Institutet in 1951, obtaining a licentiate degree in medicine and receiving his licence to practice in 1959. He earned his PhD in 1972 with a thesis on the causes and health implications of stress, becoming shortly afterwards a docent in experimental psychosomatic medicine at Karolinska Institutet.
  • In the 1970s, Lennart Levi and the Laboratory for Clinical Stress Research teamed up with the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Uppsala University to arrange a series of high-profile international symposia on the theme of society, stress and disease. In 1973, the Laboratory for Clinical Stress Research was designated the WHO’s Collaborating Centre for Research and Education on Psychosocial Factors and Health.
  • In 1978, Lennart Levi was made professor of psychosocial environmental medicine, specialising in occupational medicine.
  • In 1995, he turned 65 and became professor emeritus at Karolinska Institutet. He was awarded countless prizes and honours for his work and in 2001 was presented with H. M. the King’s Medal for his pioneering contributions to stress research.

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