The Aarhus University Distinguished Alumnus

About Aarhus University Distinguished Alumnus Award

Since 1928, Aarhus University has celebrated its birthday with the annual celebration. On the occasion of the university’s 80th anniversary in 2008, the university established a distinguished alumnus award. Each year, the award honours a graduate of Aarhus University whose impressive achievements have drawn positive attention to the university. The recipient of the award must be a graduate who has made an extraordinary contribution to society through his or her work, either nationally or internationally.

THE AARHUS UNIVERSITY DISTINGUISHED ALUMNA 2016: ANNE THOMASSEN

A doctor for life

The 2016 distinguished alumna has had a strong and lasting influence on the Danish healthcare system, and has helped improve conditions for patient groups such as rape victims and cancer patients. Meet Anne Thomassen, who became a doctor because she couldn’t become a nurse – and who knows a lot about boxing.

Anne Thomassen walks briskly down Ringvejen, which is bathed in the June sun. Stakladen is on one side of the street, and the Ambulatory is on the other. The 68-year-old retired medical director stops and looks up at the yellow brick walls which are partially covered in green vines. 

“It looks like it did back when I was a student,” she remarks, pleased to be back on the campus where she dreamed of working at a hospital as a young medical student in the 70s.

Her dream became reality, and Anne Thomasssen has been making an outstanding contribution to the Danish healthcare system ever since. Among her many contributions, she has helped improve support for victims of rape and reduced the wait for cancer treatment. Achievements we will return to. 

Anne Thomassen was surprised to be named distinguished alumna. Actually, she doesn’t think this honour should go to her, because lots of better candidates come to mind.

“But since is how things turned out, I’m very happy about it. It will give me a chance to thank Aarhus University for all of the opportunities I’ve been given here.”

Wanted to become a nurse
Anne Thomassen grew up in a shopkeeping family outside Kolding in Jutland, about an hour south of Aarhus. As a child, she was admitted to Kolding Hospital several times, including when she broke her arm. She was quite enthralled by the nurses who supported and cared for the sick, and so she decided that she wanted to become a nurse when she grew up. But when she applied for admission to the nursing school in Børkop after upper secondary school, she was rejected. The waiting list was simply too long.

“And so my father had an idea,” remembers Anne Thomassen: “’Why don’t you just go to Aarhus and become a doctor. It’s sort of the same thing, and after all, they let everyone in.”

And in fact the university was open to anyone with an upper secondary school leaving examination. So Anne Thomassen enrolled in the medical programme and quickly discovered that she had found her niche in life.

The boxing doctor
When Anne Thomassen had two years to go of the medical programme, she became a temp at the neurophysiology department at the municipal hospital in Aarhus. Here she met Dr Palle Juul-Jensen, who was both a doctor in the department and dean of the Faculty of Medicine. He let the young medical student try her hand at a variety of things at the hospital.

“On one of the first days, Palle said: ‘If you want to make something of yourself, you need to do research’,” remembers Anne Thomassen.

And so that’s what she did. She took over a research project from Dr Juul-Jensen, who late one evening had promised a journalist from the loca paper that he would investigate whether boxing was harmful to the health. Anne Thomassen read everything available on boxing technique, observed boxing matches and studied the injuries the fighters got. She included all of the champions in the Jutland Amateur Boxing Union over a ten-year period in her study, which debunked the myth that boxers are susceptible to brain damage. As a result of the research project, both Palle Juul-Jensen and Anne Thomassen were invited to boxing matches in Aarhus, where they always had ringside seats.

While she found research exciting, Anne Thomassen’s heart was in clinical practice, and after completing her degree she practiced medicine at several hospitals in East Jutland. From 1998 until her retirement in 2011, she was medical director of Aarhus University Hospital.

Support for rape victims
Throughout her career, Anne Thomassen has been a tireless patient advocate. In the late 90s, she was part of a small group which established the first centre for rape victims in Denmark. She got involved because she was frustrated by the way rape victims were treated.

“Women who reported a rape had to be questioned by the police immediately, and although the police were kind, it was a humiliating experience. After that, the woman had to go through a pelvic exam, and finally she was driven home in a police car. The women felt terrible,” explains Anne Thomassen.

Today can rape victims contact the Centre for Rape Victims directly around the clock. At the centre, they are met by a specially trained nurse who cares for them and helps them to report the rape. Police questioning and the physical exam take place at the centre, so the rape victim don’t have to be driven around, and if she doesn’t want to go home immediately, she can spend the night at the centre. The centre also provides psychological assistance afterwards.

Over a hundred women – and a few men – use the centre every year, and the centre also conducts rape research and prevention, among other things by giving talks at schools.

“I’m proud that we succeeded in establishing that centre. It was a special process with no precedent in Denmark. Even though we quickly convinced the police that it was a good idea, we had several meetings with the Ministry of Justice and other agencies before we could realise the project, after which we had to raise funding for it. But fortunately, the municipal council was quick to grant us the funding,” remembers Anne Thomassen. The Centre for Rape Victims opened in 1999.

A doctor for life
Cancer patients have also benefited from Anne Thomassen’s work. From 2000 to 2009, she was chair of the Danish Cancer Society, where she worked to bring cancer patients faster, more effective treatment and to offer them better conditions.

“After you’ve just been diagnosed with cancer, you need to be able to go directly to place where you can get help in handling the situation. And that’s why I helped establish cancer counselling centres close to the hospital,” says Anne Thomassen, whose patient advocacy resulted in the establishment of the counselling centre Hejmdal, which is located next to the municipal hospital in Aarhus.

The unifying theme in Anne Thomassen’s career is strong social commitment.

”To some people, power is an ugly word, but having power can have a positive aspect. You have an obligation to use your power to do your best for the people who need your help. Patients are my main focus, and they always have been. That doesn’t mean that I’m indifferent to research. Continual, intensive research is decisive for the development and testing of effective new forms of treatment in order to improve patients’ quality of life and survival rates,” says Anne Thomassen, who is still involved in a wide variety of activities.

She has gathered the most important documents from the archives of the old Aarhus Hospital in a single archive, she is involved in a book project on hospital history, she conducts historical tours of the municipal hospital, and she is a member of several boards. She is also part of a group which is working to establish a patient centre at the new university hospital in Skejby.

Medicine and patients are still part of Anne Thomassen. In her words, “You’re a doctor your whole life.”