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Uno Cygnaeus

Born October 12, 1810, Hämeenlinna. Died January 2, 1888, Helsinki

Undergraduate at the Royal Academy of Turku 1827, Master of Arts 1836, ordained as a minister 1837, University of Helsinki

Assistant to the vicar of Vyborg 1837–39
Minister in the service of the Russian-American Company in Alaska 1840–45
Minister for the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Saint Katarina and director of the Saint Mary’s church school 1846–58, St Petersburg

Field trip to rural Finnish schools 1858
Study trip to Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands 1858–59
Inspector General of Finnish primary schools 1861

Head of the Jyväskylä Teacher Seminary 1863–69
Inspector General of Finnish primary schools 1869–88
Member of the Board of Education 1869–88

Knight, second class, of the Order of St Anne 1961
Knight, third class, of the Order of St Vladimir 1882
Honorary PhD, Uppsala 1877

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Written by Olli Siitonen
Translated by Matthew Billington

A clergyman overseas

Uno Cygnaeus was born in Hämeenlinna into a conventional family of clergymen in 1810. The family moved to Leppäkoski manor house in Janakkala, after Uno’s father Jakob, the tax inspector in Häme province, died when Uno was just eight. The then typically brutal style of upbringing Cygnaeus experienced at Ryttylä manor’s home school in the neighbouring parish most likely shaped his later work as an educational reformer.

Cygnaeus started his university studies in the Royal Academy of Turku before the Great Fire of 1827 and the consequent relocation of the University to Helsinki. Initially, he planned a medical career, but financial constraints drove the young man, who led a relatively unbridled student life, into working as a part-time private tutor. Meanwhile he studied at the University in various faculties and finally graduated as a bachelor of philosophy in 1836 with zoology and history as his main subjects. In the following year he studied theology and was ordained.

Cygnaeus, who was critical of the way in which theology was taught at the University, did not initially sense a vocation for the priesthood, and the practice of confirmation school teaching fell far short of his ideal for the education of the young. Later, the role of religion was to assume greater importance in his thoughts about education. After working two years as the assistant to the vicar of Vyborg, Cygnaeus took up a five-year posting as chaplain to a Russian-American trading company, whence began the nine-month voyage to Novo-Arkangel (present-day Sitka) in Alaska. During his posting, Cygnaeus walked around the colony meeting local residents and assembled an extensive zoological collection. He donated the tropical mammals and birds that formed part of the collection to the University of Helsinki. He was not particularly fond of Sitka but the experiences he had there did broaden his world view. Drawing on all this experience, Cygnaeus developed a religiously-based view which integrated freedom, brotherhood and equality into an educational framework.

Upon his return from Alaska, Cygnaeus lived in St. Petersburg until 1858 and served as the priest and religious instructor in St. Catherine’s Swedish parish. It was during this time in St Petersburg that he met German teachers who were interested in pedagogy. He also got to know the works of F.W.A. Fröbel and Heinrich Pestalozzi on the subject.

Cygnaeus’ keen interest in dancing and participation in other social events were generally considered to be inappropriate for a gentleman of the cloth. As a consequence, rumours of romantic affairs followed him wherever he went. While in St. Petersburg, Cygnaeus married the daughter of a Helsinki bank clerk, Anna Charlotta Axianne Diederichs in 1854. The couple had four children.

Bust of Uno Cygnaeus in Jyväskylä. Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Antti Leppänen


  • Tarja-Liisa Luukkanen, ‘Uno Cygnaeus (1810-1888)’ National Biography of Finland online. Accessed October 26, 2015.
  • Juha Siltala, Valkoisen äidin pojat. Siveellisyys ja sen varjot kansallisessa projektissa (’The sons of a white mother. Decency and its dark side in the national project’), Otava, 1999.
  • Wikipedia, ’Uno Cygnaeus’. Accessed October 26, 2015
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