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Matthias Castrén

Matthias Alexander Castrén
Born December 12, 1813, Tervola. Died May 7, 1852, Helsinki.

Bachelor of Arts 1836, Master of Arts 1836, Doctor of Philosophy 1944, Imperial Alexander University.

Docent, 1840 (Finnish and Old Scandinavian Tribal Languages), Imperial Alexander University, Professor, 1851 (Finnish Language and Literature), Imperial Alexander University.

Field trips:
1841-44 Russia (occasionally with Elias Lönnrot)
1845-48 Russia and China (accompanying Johan Bergstadt)

Awards and special achievements:
Joint winner of the Demidov Award
Member, St Petersburg Academy of Science, January 1, 1849.

Photo: WikimediaCommons
Written by Tero Juutilainen
Translated by John Calton

Inspired by the Kalevala

Matthias Castrén began his studies at the Imperial Alexander University in 1830. Following an academic path and attending university were natural for Matthias as both of his parents came from old clerical families and appreciated scholarship.

During his university studies, Castrén studied languages and philosophy. It was with the publication of the Kalevala that his ultimate decision to take up the academic life, as well as ethnology and linguistics, was made. Through his circle of friends, which included Elias Lönnrot, Johan Vilhelm Snellman and J. L. Runeberg, he absorbed at close hand the national romantic atmosphere and thinking which dominated Finland in those times. He also studied linguistics in Denmark. Matthias Castrén received his Master of Arts degree in 1836.

Having received his degree, he had plans to become a scholar, and the neighbouring peoples in the east exerted a particular fascination for Castrén. Research led him all around the Grand Duchy, and even all the way to China. His research trips would sometimes extend over several years, but he produced unique archaeological and linguistic material. The material is still fit for purpose, largely owing to the theories and methods of data collection Castrén had developed.

The intervals between trips were mostly spent publishing research results, preparing for forthcoming trips or teaching. He married Natalia Tengström in 1849, and in the 1850s the path to becoming Professor of Finnish language and Literature opened up. His competence for the professorship was established by the work De affixis personalibus linguarum Altaicarum (‘Of the personal affixes of Altaic languages’), which represented “the highest level currently attained in comparative linguistics”. He was made professor, and carried out his duties for just a calendar year before succumbing to tuberculosis on a research trip. The disease spread, leading to his death at the early age of 38.

Image: Helsingin yliopistomuseo.​
Image: Helsingin yliopistomuseo.​


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