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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

Pohjoisranta 12 - a Home with a Sea View

Besides his academic career, Otto Donner had an influence on Finnish society through his leadership of the ecclesiastical affairs committee ( a position whose function broadly equates to that of the minister of education today) and as a senator in Finland’s very first political government, Leo Mechelin’s senate from 1905 to 1908. In addition to science and politics, Donner was said to be interested in music, art and nature.

Having been appointed professor, Donner set about having a house built for his family on the shoreline of the Kruununhaka district in central Helsinki. The magnificent four-storey neoclassical stone building at Pohjoisranta 12 was built in 1899. It was designed by Magnus Schjerfbeck, based on Sebastian Gripenberg’s drawings. The house became the home base for the Donner family, and a meeting place for Helsinki’s great and good. Pohjoisranta 12 (‘north shoreline’) has for the most part been preserved in its original form, and is one of the coastline’s most imposing buildings. Donner had a large family. His first wife was Hilda Rosina Louise Malm, daughter of the Jakobstad-Pietarsaari sawmill and shipyard owner Peter Malm. The couple had eight children. Louise died and Donner remarried in 1887, to Wilhelmine Sofia Charlotta (Minette) Munck. The family grew with the addition of a further three children. One of Otto Donner’s children was the Finno-Ugrian linguist and anthropologist Kai Donner, and one of Donner’s grandchildren is the controversial literary and cultural figure, Jörn Donner.

In his 1982 film Yhdeksän tapaa lähestyä Helsinkiä (‘Nine ways to approach Helsinki’), Jörn Donner claims of Pohjoisranta 12:

My grandfather was born in 1835. He became professor and senator in the government of the day. His wife was rich, independent and strong-willed. She lent my grandfather 150,000 Finnish marks and built Pohjoisranta 12. The building was near the seat of power: near the church, the government, the University, the Police and the home of the Russian Governor-General. It still is near the seat of power.

The pink building in the middle of the photo is Pohjoisranta 12, built for Otto Donner. Photo: Riitta-Ilona Hurmerinta.​​
The pink building in the middle of the photo is Pohjoisranta 12, built for Otto Donner. Photo: Riitta-Ilona Hurmerinta.​​

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