Sophia Wilkens

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Sophia Wilkens
Born 1817
Died 1889
Occupation educator, social reformer
Known for Pioneer in the education of students with Intellectual disability
File:Emanuella Carlbeck 1872.jpg
Sophia Wilkens, middle row, center, at a pedagogue meeting in Copenhagen 1872.

Sofia Charlotta Wilkens née Thomée (1817 – 1889), was a Swedish pedagogue. She is counted as a pioneer in the education of students with Intellectual disability, as well as deaf and mute students. She founded the Döfstumsinstitutet (Deaf and Mute Institute) in Karlskrona, a combined orphanage, training school and working home for pupils with physical and intellectual disabilities, and was its manager in 1859-1877.


Sophia Wilkens was the cousin of Bishop Johan Henrik Thomander of Lund and belonged to the social upper classes of Karlskrona, which was a notable city in Sweden in the mid 19th-century. As was fashionable among upper class females of her time, she was active as a social reformer through philanthropy. Married, she had only one child, a daughter who died at the age of three, and engaged in the care of poor orphans. In 1859, she was given the care of an intellectually disabled girl. The same year, she founded her own orphanage. In 1864, the commune decided to something for the deaf and mute of the county, and her school, being the only one in existence, were given financial support. The following year, it was moved in to new localities, and from 1868 onward, it was given governmental support. The home was called Döfstumsinstitutet (1859-1907), and was responsible to receive people from most of Southern Sweden.

At this point, there had been combined schools and homes for deaf and mute children in Sweden since the pioneer work of Pär Aron Borg. While there were no schools for intellectually disabled children, and the care for them were in fact not developed at all, they were often included at the schools for deaf and mute children. Thereby, it was natural for her to receive children with both physical as well as intellectual handicaps at the same school. However, through experience of the education of children with different forms of handicaps together, she developed the conviction, that it was healthy for the intellectually disabled to be tutored with children with a normal development.

Sophia Wilkens became a strong spokesperson for the line of inclusion: she believed that the intellectually disabled should not be institutionalized, but rather be educated with the goal to be included in public society as self-supporting and valuable professionals. Her combined orphanage and school were therefore not an institution were people were placed for life, as the other institutions founded during the second half of the 19th-century, but a home were the pupils were educated and trained to be released to function in society.

After confirmation, she arranged employment for the students. The males were successfully employed within handicrafts and the navy. However, it was more difficult to find employment for females, especially since Wilkens would like to protect them from the fear of abuse. Therefore, she founded an adjoining working home, Skyddshem för abnorma flickor (1869-1911), were the majority of her female former students were employed manufacturing textiles which did become very successful and managed to support itself. This was controversial in a period when intellectually disabled people were regarded to be of no use for society, and authorities therefore generally considered it to be the task of private charity to care for them rather than the state. From 1870s, she participated in the Nordic pedagogue meetings for the schooling of the disabled.

A pioneer, she stated that as she had no support from science, she had to rely on her own experience, and that compassion had taught her that the disabled could and should be tutored to manage on their own rather than to be institutionalized.

She was given the Illis Quorum in 1873.


Alongside Emanuella Carlbeck, Sophia Wilkens was one of the two pioneers in the education of the intellectually disabled in Sweden in the mid 19th-century, when the education and care of this category was developed in Europe, in contrast to other nations, were the pioneers were normally male. However, it was to be Carlbeck whose ideas was to set the pattern from the treatment in Sweden in the following decades. Carlbeck and Wilkens represented two contrasting lines in the education of the intellectually disabled: while Carlbeck focused on giving them humane treatment, but for a life in an institution, Wilkens contested institutionalization and spoke for inclusion of this category of patients within society, and education of them to be self-supporting members of society. The line of Wilkens was too progressive for the 19th-century, when education and care at all was considered controversial, and herideas was not to be given much support until the second half of the 20th-century.

See also


  • Kaleb Teodor Lindstedt – dövstum i Kristianopel av Erik Lindstedt och Gunvor Cerne
  • Växjö universitet. Institutionen för pedagogik. Elisabet Frithiof. Paper till Pedagogikhistorisk forskningskonferens i Stockholm, LHS, 2006-09-28- - 29. Session 2: Bildning, kultur och makt
  • Wilkens, Sten (1995). Sophia Charlotta Wilkens Född Thomée. En minnesteckning. Blekingesamlingen, Karlskrona stadsbibliotek.
  • Bromé Karlskrona stads historia III