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Otto Donner

Born December 15, 1835, Kokkola. Died September 17, 1909, Helsinki.

Bachelor of Arts, 1861, Master of Arts and Doctor of Philosophy, 1864, Imperial Alexander University

Docent, Sanskrit and Comparative Linguistics, 1870–75, and 1875–1905, Imperial Alexander University
Member of the Senate, Head of the Ecclesiastical Affairs Committee, 1905–08
Representative of the Clergy at the Diet, member of various select committees, 1877–1905
Official, Bank of Finland, 1885–1905 and President, 1900–05
President, Viipuri student ‘nation’, 1874–76 and Inspector, 1882–92

Founder Member, Finno-Ugrian Society
Founder Member, Secretary, 1871-73, and Vice-President, 1878-80, Finnish Antiquarian Society
Member of various Finnish and international learned societies

Photo: WikimediaCommons
Written by Riitta-Ilona Hurmerinta
Translated by John Calton

Linguist Steeped in Fieldwork

Son of a shipowner and businessman from Karleby-Kokkola on the north-west coast of Finland, Otto Donner studied the Finnish language and modern literature at the Imperial Alexander University. He also studied Sanskrit independently. Donner was fascinated by M.A. Castrén’s initiative to research Finno-Ugrian languages on a comparative basis.

Donner defended his doctorate in a thesis on Indian (the Mahābhārata) and Finnish origin myths (Kalevala),  written in 1863. The thesis was approved, although the professor of Finnish Language and Literature, August Ahlqvist, well known for his biting rhetoric, took the opportunity to challenge the work.

Following the successful defence of the thesis however, Donner focused on Sanskrit and linguistic studies in Berlin, Tübingen, Paris and London. Whilst abroad, he also carried out research work, the findings of which he duly published. For example in 1870, his research dealing with Indian death culture and sacrificial rites was based on previously unknown written sources. Thanks to his publications, and at the behest of Wilhelm Lagus, the professor of Baltic literatures, Donner went on to become Finland’s first docent of Sanskrit and comparative linguistics (1870), and then supernumerary professor in 1875.

By the turn of the century Donner had become the most important organiser of ethnological sciences and Asian cultures. Behind this might be seen a Finnish liberal political desire to promote Finland’s standing in the world through scientific investigation. Donner’s main contribution was to organise extensive fieldwork and maintain an international network of researchers. He had a large role in establishing the Suomalais-Ugrilaista Seuraa~Finno-Ugrian Society in 1883, broadening the Society’s activities to encompass Turkic and Chinese cultures.

Otto Donner was an enthusiast teacher of linguistics in the University too. A number of eminent linguists were his students, for example the Finnish language scholar Emil Nestor Setälä, the professor of Altaic Languages, Gustaf John Ramstedt, the scholar of Ostyak (Khanty) Heikki Paasonen, Scholar of Vogul (Mansi) Artturi Kannisto, Indologist Julio Reuter and Otto’s own son, Kai Donner, who conducted research on the Samoyed languages in Siberia.

As was the way of university men of that time, Donner also took part in social policy. He was a moderate Finnish liberal, but shifted into the Swedish-speaking camp after the so-called language strife. At the Diet he was first the representative of the University and subsequently that of the clergy between 1887 and 1905. As a member of the Senate he headed the ecclesiastical affairs committee from 1905 to 1908.

A bust of Otto Donner, sculpted by Walter Runeberg. Photo: WikimediaCommons.​​​
A bust of Otto Donner, sculpted by Walter Runeberg. Photo: WikimediaCommons.​​​


  • Väisänen, Maija, ’Donner Otto (1835–1909)’. Dictionary of Finnish National Biography online. Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura. Accessed April 23, 2015 (available via NELLI).
  • Ylioppilasmatrikkeli (University register) 1853–99, University of Helsinki. Accessed 27 April, 2015.
  • Wikipedia, Otto Donner. Accessed April 27, 2015.


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