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Honorary Doctorates

Selected eight recipients of honorary doctorates from our faculty

Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim
Born June 4, 1867, Askainen. Died January 27, 1951, Lausanne, Switzerland
Honorary doctorate 1919

Akseli Gallen-Kallela
Born April 26, 1865, Pori. Died March 7, 1931, Stockholm
Honorary doctorate 1923

Otto Manninen
Born August 13, 1872, Kangasniemi. Died April 6, 1950, Helsinki
Honorary doctorate 1927

Frans Emil Sillanpää
Born September 16, 1888, Hämeenkyrö. Died June 3, 1964, Helsinki
Honorary doctorate 1936

Ilmari Kianto
Born May 7, 1874, Pulkkila. Died April 28, 1970, Helsinki
Honorary doctorate 1957

Lennart-Georg Meri
Born March 19, 1929, Tallinn. Died March 14, 2006,Tallinn
Honorary doctorate 1986

Esteri Hellen Vapaa-Jää
Born August 24, 1925, Kärkölä. Died November 22, 2011, Espoo
Honorary doctorate 1994

Mirkka Elina Rekola
Born June 26, 1931, Tampere. Died February 5, 2014, Helsinki
Honorary doctorate 2000

Photo: Faculty of Arts
Written by Tero Juutilainen and Tomas Sjöblom
Translated by Matthew Billington

Frans Emil Sillanpää—Occupying the Middle Ground

Frans Emil Sillanpää was the first Finnish recipient of the Nobel Prize, and to date the only Finn to have won the Nobel Prize in Literature. He had no plans to become a writer when he enrolled at the University, and instead pursued a career in medicine. Although Sillanpää dropped out of medical school, he nevertheless adopted a worldview based on natural philosophy. This was evident in his debut novel, published in 1916, Elämä ja aurinko (‘Life and Sun’), as well as in his later output.

Through his friend Heikki Järnefelt, Sillanpää met the crème de la crème of the Finnish art world during his student days, including Jean Sibelius, Eero Järnefelt and Juhani Aho.

Besides natural philosophy, one of Sillanpää’s defining characteristics can be considered his position as a moderate both in terms of culture and politics. He remained neutral during the Civil War, and soon after peace broke out he published the novel Hurskas Kurjuus (1916, translated into English as Meek Heritage), which depicts events leading up to the war from the perspective of Red Finland. The book was translated into Swedish and increased his recognition in the Nordic countries.

Photo from the Finnish Literature Society / Literature Archive

The 1920s were a financially difficult time for Sillanpää. Renovating his new manor in Hämeenkyrö tied up his funds, and he had trouble writing books. Working as an editor for the publishing company WSOY helped him survive from day to day, but it was no permanent solution. At the turn of the 1930s, the Otava Publishing Company pulled Sillanpää out of this financial quagmire by paying him 600,000 Finnish markkas and taking care of his debts for the rights to his past and present works and to his manor.

The 1930s proved a pivotal time in the career of Sillanpää. Leaving behind his financial woes seemingly did wonders for his creativity, and in the years that followed he published a novel every year. These novels also attracted attention abroad. At this point there was already speculation that he would receive the Nobel Prize, but it was not to be. Nevertheless, he was recognised by the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Helsinki with an honorary doctorate in 1936.

F.E. Sillänpää was finally awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1939, on the eve of the Winter War. The author refused to keep the prize and instead donated it to the government as part of the programme to collect precious metals to aid the war effort. After World War II, Sillanpää frequently appeared on the radio. He was particularly known for the Christmas sermons he gave between 1945 and 1963, and he is perhaps even better remembered by the general public for these sermons than for his literary output.

Lassi Nummi and Mika Waltari visiting the 70th birthday party of Sillanpää in 1958. Photo from Wikipedia Commons.


  • Klinge, Matti, Sodan ja muutoksen aika (‘The Time of War and Change’) from Klinge, Matti (editor) Helsingin yliopisto 1694–1990. 3. osa Helsingin yliopisto 1917–1990 (‘The University of Helsinki 1640-1990, part three, The University of Helsinki 1917-1990’). Otava, Helsinki 1990.
  • Rajala, Panu, Sillanpää, Frans Emil. National Biography of Finland Online Publication. Accessed August 28, 2015. Available for free through the Nelli Portal.
  • Nobel-prize”, the F. E. Sillanpää Society
  • Frans Emil Sillanpää. Wikipedia. Accessed August 28, 2015.
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