In memoriam: Academician Päiviö Tommila – A prominent historian

Academician Päiviö Tommila (1931–2022), the former rector of the University of Helsinki, passed away at the age of 91 in Kauniainen on 18 November 2022.

In the second half of the 20th century, Tommila carved out a significant career as a historian. He served as professor of Finnish history at the University of Turku and the University of Helsinki, and as the rector of the University of Helsinki from 1988 to 1992. He distinguished himself as both a productive historian and a leader of large-scale research and book projects. Tommila was awarded the title of academician in 2004.

From 1944 to 1967, his father Eero Tommila was a professor of physical chemistry at the University of Helsinki, living with his family in an official residence on the second floor of the departmental building on Hallituskatu (later Yliopistonkatu), opposite the University’s Main Building. Inspired by both his father’s history hobby and the nationalistic Kumpujen yöstä, a major work by Aarno Karimo, which he read when he was 10 years old, Päiviö Tommila became interested in history at an early age.

After completing the Finnish matriculation examination at the Helsinki Real Lyceum and his conscript service, Tommila began studying history at the University of Helsinki in 1951. His studies progressed rapidly, concluding in 1954 with a master’s thesis on Helsinki as a spa town before the Crimean War, thanks to which he was appointed the highest ranking master graduand in the conferment ceremony of 1957. Two years earlier, he had married Seija Kilpi, holder of a master’s degree in philosophy, the daughter of Professor of Chemistry Sulo Kilpi. Five children were born in the marriage.

As the family grew, Tommila embarked on several parallel research projects and teaching. He wrote the history of the parish of Nurmijärvi, drew up articles for the Otavan iso tietosanakirja encyclopaedia, worked on his doctoral thesis and served as an assistant in Finnish history as well as Finnish and Scandinavian history at the University of Helsinki from 1959 to 1965.

The source material for the doctoral thesis (‘La Finlande dans la politique européenne en 1809–1815) was primarily in French, which is why it was also published in that language in the spring of 1962. In his thesis, Tommila convincingly demonstrated how Russia’s solutions in Finland had a clear connection to contemporary power politics. Consequently, he joined the junior guard of scholars that began, in the early 1960s, to emphasise that the Russian and Soviet state leadership had no separate policy for Finland. The change of attitude was clearly influenced by Finland’s post-war foreign policy, for which Urho Kekkonen was finally confirmed as the undisputed guarantor in the presidential election of February 1962, if not before.

In spite of his young age, Tommila was unanimously appointed as professor of Finnish history at the University of Turku in 1964, as he had already published extensive and diversely oriented studies. His pace remained nearly unabated throughout his tenure in Turku (1965–1976), which ended after he was appointed to a corresponding position at the University of Helsinki.

After returning to the University of Helsinki in 1976, Tommila took the lead in three extensive projects. The first of these was the three-volume major work Suomen kulttuurihistoria (‘The Cultural History of Finland’, 1979–1982). The work was not as innovative as the corresponding series of works edited by Gunnar Suolahti in the 1930s, but it was used as a textbook at Finnish universities until the early 2000s.

Another major project was Suomen kaupunkilaitoksen historia (‘The History of the Finnish City Institution’, 1981–1984), which was packed with so much information that it still serves as the most important reference work in the field. The third and largest project was Suomen lehdistön historia (‘The History of the Finnish Press’, 1985–1992), which employed an entire research group in the 1980s and produced several doctoral theses.

In 1988, Tommila was appointed rector of the University of Helsinki, making a prominent appearance in the 350th anniversary celebrations of the University. However, he did not run for the chancellorship in 1992, as students considered him to have had an excessively reserved attitude towards the administrative reform of the University. The reform, which had come into effect in the same year, considerably reduced the power of professors in University administration.

During his term as the rector, Tommila published the general treatise Suomen historiankirjoitus: Tutkimuksen historia (‘Finnish Historiography: The History of Research’), in which he provided a balanced overview of the domestic trends of his discipline. After retiring in 1994, Tommila turned his attention back to the history of the press and social science history in his work Suuri adressi (‘The Great Address’, 1999), in which he demonstrated how systematically the Legality Front, a coalition of Finnish political parties, opposed the policy of unification promoted by the Russian authorities. From 2000 to 2002, Tommila worked as the editor-in-chief of the four-volume Suomen tieteen historia (‘The History of Finnish Science’) series.

Tommila served in positions of responsibility, often specifically as chair, in an astounding number of scholarly associations and organisations promoting civic education. Compassionate moderation combined with solid precision and determined leadership characterised Tommila in all of his actions. In his private life, he concentrated on an expanding family, summers spent at the family’s archipelago villa in Kustavi, and genealogy.

In 2004, the President of the Republic granted Päiviö Tommila the title of academician.

The University expresses its sympathy to Päiviö Tommila’s family and loved ones. The University will pay tribute to the memory of its former rector by flying their flags at half-mast on the City Centre Campus to honour his memory.


Henrik Meinander, the author of this obituary, works as professor of history at the Faculty of Arts, University of Helsinki.