Wars and fires have not subdued the University of Helsinki, and positive things have come from crises

The University of Helsinki, a 380-year-old institution, has seen hard times over the centuries, with wars and fires putting the academic community to the test. Crises have exacted a price, but at times something new has arisen from the devastation.

Coronavirus has changed the everyday life of the University community. The buildings have been closed, events have been cancelled, and remote connections are straining under heavy usage. In addition to the virus, many people are worried about the continuance of research, examination arrangements, graduation or the lack of community.

However, the University has always come through the crises it has encountered.

“As a rule, crises in the history of the University have enabled changes of pace, whether we are talking about periods of transition in the government, politics, ideology or something else,” says Laura Kolbe, professor of European history.

“The University community has always been good at solving practical problems. The European university institution has been around for a thousand years, surviving all possible crises on local, national and global levels. We will survive this one too, gaining plenty of research-related challenges in the process.”

What happened when the professors of the Royal Academy of Turku fled to Sweden in the 18th century? And how did things go when the institution moved from the fire-ravaged Turku to Helsinki? What was remote studying like on the front during the Continuation War? Pia Vuorikoski, head of exhibitions at the Helsinki University Museum, shed some light on the history of crises at the University of Helsinki for the purposes of this article.

Change of generation resulted in scientific advancement

The Great Northern War (1700–1721), or ‘the Greater Wrath’ as it was known in Finland, suspended the operations of the Royal Academy of Turku for nearly a decade. When the doors closed in 1713, the professors fled to Sweden, with only a handful returning to their posts after the war. The material damage to the Academy was long-lasting, and it was unable to pay the agreed professorial salaries. Students also had it rough: accommodation and books were hard to come by, and reductions were made to scholarships.

At the same time, the Academy underwent an almost complete generational change. New professors brought with them new kinds of scientific thinking, for example, challenging the Bible as a conclusive source in the natural sciences.

Teaching and research in the natural sciences became increasingly free, as long as you were not expressing views opposing the Lutheran faith or criticising society and the Diet. In Turku, there was an emerging drive to accumulate knowledge in the natural sciences independently, whereas traditionally such knowledge had originated in older European universities.

A new and increasingly critical line of thinking began calling into question the prevailing notions of historical research, according to which the history of the Kingdom of Sweden dated back to biblical times. Still, the new research approaches were also based on the notion that all human beings were descendants of Noah. Therefore, history was considered to reach back no further than the Deluge, which is said to have taken place around the year 2500 BCE.

“Senseless” transfer from the ruins of Turku to Helsinki

At the end of the Finnish War in 1809, the designation of the Academy in Turku was changed from royal to imperial. The Great Fire of Turku in September 1827 denoted a dramatic interruption also to the operations of the Academy. The main building was largely destroyed, while the library, pharmacy and botanic garden also suffered damage. The clinical institute and observatory, serving as the base for the Academy's leadership and administration, remained intact. Soon after the fire, a courier delivered an imperial edict to the leadership, notifying them of the transfer of the academy to Helsinki.

“We received this notification yesterday during the session of the Senate. You may find it difficult to imagine the effect this news has had on all of us,” wrote Professor C. R. Sahlberg.

The transfer was considered senseless and destructive to the system of government, and no good outcomes were expected to come from it.

However, plans for the transfer had been initiated already at an earlier date, since Tsar Nicholas I thought Turku was too close to the orbit of Sweden. Therefore, the Academy along with its possessions, staff and students relocated to the new administrative heart of the Grand Duchy of Finland and was renamed the Imperial Alexander University in Finland.

Operations continue in the Government Palace

In Helsinki, Professor of Physics Gustaf Hällström, the first rector serving a three-year term, took the reins in reorganising the University’s operations.

“Hällström had founded the Cabinet of Physics in the Academy Building, which was inaugurated in 1817 in Turku, where all the instruments were destroyed in the Great Fire of Turku, with the exception of items on loan. These items are now on view in the Power of Thought exhibition of the Helsinki University Museum, which will hopefully be reopened no later than in the autumn term of 2020. Hällström had a house built for himself on the corner of Yliopistonkatu and Fabianinkatu, in the place of the current student cafeteria at Porthania,” says Pia Vuorikoski.

The University Library was relocated to the east wing of the Senate, or the present-day Government Palace, where a public library for senate officials and citizens had been operating for a couple of years. For the further accumulation of library collections, the University received donations and subsidies not only from Russia, but also from the Nordic countries, Europe and the United States.

Medical training a priority in times of war

The next crisis in the history of the University was caused by warfare. Before the air raids in the Winter War began on 30 November 1939, teaching at the University of Helsinki had already been temporarily suspended. Men fit for military service were issued orders to report to the army, and the University’s collections were evacuated. From January 1940, only examinations and a handful of public defences of doctoral dissertations were held. In the following time of peace, teaching, medical training in particular, was continued exceptionally in the summer.

After the war broke out again in 1941, the continuation of University operations was postponed. The academic year 1942–1943 during the trench warfare phase was implemented fairly normally, but there were signs of the war: the ratio of female students grew to 70%, and due to cost-cutting efforts, only positions related to medical training were filled.

Incendiary bombs fell on the Main Building of the University in air raids carried out in 1944, resulting in the destruction of the original artworks housed in the Great Hall, among other objects. During the Continuation War, attempts were made to support students’ study progress, and packets of literature and even visiting lecturers were sent to the front. After the war, returning to studies nevertheless proved to be a big challenge to many, while more than 1,400 students enrolled at or teachers employed by the University were among the fallen.

Science recruited to support national competitiveness

Warfare strengthened the notion that the educated classes had a societal duty and a duty to be loyal to the nation as a whole. The University contributed to the government’s goal of establishing a strong and equal society. Research-based knowledge was considered to be a guarantee of economic, political and cultural competitiveness. This altered the relationship between the academic community and the wider world: in an increasingly determined manner, society started to steer the research conducted under the auspices of the University, and the University offered its support to the government's ideas pertaining to the nature and mission of research.

As research started to get increasingly global and networks increasingly international, Finland gained new research-based knowledge, while scientific achievements originating in Finland spread abroad. The first big science project in which Finland and the University of Helsinki took part was the project in atomic energy and peaceful nuclear physics, initiated in Finland in 1955. Incrementally, Finnish science began to catch up with the top institutes internationally.

Why do we exist?

According to Laura Kolbe, the University has enjoyed an exceptionally broad autonomy and long-lasting independent status in relation to the Finnish government. For a long time, the institution has been corporative and financially independent, enabling a ‘self-sufficient’ or self-directed approach to crises and surviving them.

“That crises have not defeated research and education, the academic core duties of the University, is a common denominator. Throughout the ages, members of the University community have been key producers of societal knowledge, and there have always been new experts among the researchers ready to show the way even on the national level. Without a doubt, this will be true for the crisis of 2020 as well.”

What Kolbe finds even more important than the forced digital leap taken in recent weeks is the clarification of the University's virtues and values during the crisis.

“The question ‘why do we exist?’ becomes topical and focuses on substance: what holds us together, what inspires us to work, and what infuses us with faith? Research in itself is a strong force in producing optimism, as it has the ability for continuous self-correction, often also stirred by crises. Science, research and teaching have a significance that profoundly guides our work to produce tools with which to tackle challenges and build a better future.”

You can also watch the speech celebrating the 380th anniversary of the University of Helsinki by Rector Jari Niemelä and Teija Tiilikainen, vice-chair of the Board of the University, on YouTube. 

Sources for this article include Veli-Matti Autio’s analysis (in Finnish only) of the register of fallen in the wars from 1939 to 1945, Matti Klinge’s Helsingin yliopiston historiikki (‘History of the University of Helsinki’), Ivar A. Heikel’s work Helsingin yliopisto 1640–1940 (‘University of Helsinki 1640–1940’), Uunio Saalas’s article ‘Carl Reinhold Sahlberg. Luonnontutkija, yliopisto- ja maatalousmies 1779–1860’ (‘Carl Reinhold Sahlberg. Naturalist, academician and agriculturalist 1779–1860’), Helsingin yliopiston alkuajoilta (‘Early years of the University of Helsinki’), a work edited by Gunnar Suolehti et al., and a website on the history of the University of Helsinki edited by Pia Österman.


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