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Elias Lönnrot

Born April 9, 1802, Sammatti. Died March 19, 1884, Sammatti.

Master of Arts,1827, Royal Academy of Turku
Bachelor of Medicine, 1830 and Doctor of Medical Science, 1832, Imperial Alexander University
Professor of Finnish Language and Literature, 1853–62, Imperial Alexander University
Folk poetry fieldwork and research trips, 1828–44
District Medical Officer for the Kajaani region, 1833–43, 1849–54

Picture: Helsingin yliopistomuseo
Written by Kaarina Pitkänen-Heikkilä and Suvi Uotinen (ed.)
Translated by John Calton

Beacon for the people, craftsman for the language

Elias Lönnrot was born into a southern Finnish family of artisans, and in all the years he spent collecting lore and administering medicine, he always worked among the common country people. His early correspondence from Kajaani days reveals a considerable degree of concern over the countryfolk – their lack of education, their superstitious ways, drunkenness and moral depravity. This drove him in later years to expend a great deal of his time and energy on a mission to enlighten his fellow men and women.

At a time when the predominant language of education was Swedish or Latin, Lönnrot believed that the key to civilising the people was to provide teaching in their own language, namely Finnish. He knew from personal experience how much effort it took for a Finnish boy to learn anything through the Swedish language. Most of his labours in developing Finnish were aimed at nurturing the expressive range of Finnish, all the while mindful of the possibility that Finnish might at last become a language of instruction in schools and universities. He translated literature relating to the law and botany, and compiled Finnish-language glossaries in areas such as medicine, mathematics and grammar.

In the second half of the nineteenth century these efforts began to pay off: Elias Lönnrot was the first recorded official to preside over a doctoral defence in the Imperial Alexander University conducted in Finnish. On May 1, 1858, his student Rietrikki Polén defended his thesis on Finnish literary history.

Photo: Museovirasto.​
Photo: Museovirasto.​


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