The Estonian Academy of Sciences was founded in 1938 as an association of top-level scientists and scholars with commitment and responsibility to advance scientific research and represent Estonian science nationally and internationally. The primary mission of the Academy is to assist in building a knowledge-based Estonia, fostering adaptation of new knowledge for economic growth and improvement of the quality of life in Estonia, enhancing public appreciation of science and scientific methods of thought.

Relying on the intellectual power of its Members, the Academy organises various activities in order to achieve its objectives. The Academy provides independent and highly professional scientific expertise and science-policy advice, promotes excellence in research, communicates and disseminates knowledge, enhances public awareness of science and scientists, encourages research co-operation at national and international levels.

The beginning of academies in Europe

The first academies of sciences were founded in Europe in the 17th century. Their creation was due to the fact that the rulers wanted wise advice. The rulers of the time themselves may not have been interested in science, but they were often accompanied by influential figures who could appreciate knowledge.

Before the independence of Estonia, the Russian St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences included about a hundred scientists from here. On the photo: Academician Friedrich Schmidt together with other participants of the VII International Geological Congress are raising the glasses. The year was 1897. (photo: Historical Archives)

In Russia, which had hitherto developed in the wrong direction on the periphery of Western civilization, the academy had to be founded together with a university and a academic gymnasium, because there was practically no education system. This was done with the ukase of Emperor Peter I in 1724. The Imperial St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences included about hundred scientists who were from or closely associated with Estonia, such as Karl Ernst von Baer, Alexander von Bunge, Alexander von Middendorff, Georg Friedrich Parrot, Georg Wilhelm Richmann, Peter Carl Ludwig Schwarz, Friedrich Georg Wilhelm von Struve, Otto Wilhelm von Struve et al.

Wilhelm Ostwald, a member of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences, was born and raised in Riga, his father had moved to Livonia from Germany, and the family had roots in Hessen and Berlin. So far, he is the only Nobel Prize winner to graduate from the University of Tartu (photo: Historical Archives)

The beginning of the Estonian Academy of Sciences 1938-1940

In certain periods in the 19th century, the University of Tartu was the only research university in the entire Russian Empire. In the independent Republic of Estonia, it was initially thought that the University of Tartu could also perform the coordinating and advisory functions of the Academy of Sciences. In the 1930s, these beliefs were abandoned. On the photo: the main building of the University of Tartu at the end of the 19th century (photo: Historical Archives)

The first research societies operating with the University of Tartu were established in Estonia in the 19th century and they laid an important foundation for local science. The ideas of founding the Estonian Academy of Sciences arose at the same time as Estonia's independence. However, this was not achieved because there was a shortage of Estonian scientists at that time, and besides that, there were more important challenges for the young country, such as launching a national university and education system in its own language.

By the second half of the 1930s, the situation in Estonian science and education had changed a lot. The Estonian Academy of Sciences was founded on January 28, 1938, based on the Estonian Academy of Sciences Act issued by decree of the President Konstantin Päts. According to the decree, the autonomous academy was subordinated to the Ministry of Education. The law entered into force after its publication in the Riigi Teataja on February 7, 1938.

The first plenary session of the Academy of Sciences took place on April 20, 1938 in the hall of the Council of the University of Tartu. Karl Schlossmann was elected President of the Academy. The formal opening meeting was held on October 22 with the participation of President Päts in the hall of the Estonian Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Tallinn. After the loss of independence in June 1940, the Estonian Academy of Sciences was liquidated by a law signed on July 17 by Julius Semper, the Minister of Education of the pro-Communist puppet Government.

The Estonian Academy of Sciences was born in 1938. The average age of the members of the Academy was a little over 50 in 1938, half of the members of the Academy had received higher education outside Estonia and four of them had fought in the Estonian War of Independence. The photo shows the gathering of academics in the hall of the University of Tartu in April 1938. (Photo: Historical Archives)

Soviet Academy of Sciences in Estonia 1946-1991

On June 28, 1945, the Soviet authorities issued a decree "On the Restoration of the Academy of Sciences". On April 5, 1946, Arnold Veimer, Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Estonian SSR, signed a decree on the composition of the Estonian SSR Academy of Sciences. Historian Hans Kruus was appointed the first president of the Estonian SSR Academy of Sciences. On the same day, the Council of Ministers of the Estonian SSR also approved the statutes of the academy. On April 6, 1946, the first meeting of the General Assembly of the Estonian SSR Academy of Sciences took place in the white hall of Toompea Castle.

There were other flags and slogans during the Soviet era. Nor did the Soviet authorities recognize the legal continuity of the Estonian Academy of Sciences, counting 1946 as the foundation of the academy until the Perestoika. On the photo: the President of the Academy Johan Eichfeldt opens a scientific session in Piistaoja. The year was 1950 (Photo: Estonian Film Archive)

From 1947 onwards, the academy came under increasing ideological pressure. The promotion of trustworthy peole to the structures of the Academy of Sciences was called for. In the following years, a large number of people who were distrusted by the Soviet authorities were fired from the Academy of Sciences system and repressed. In 1950, Hans Kruus, President of the Academy of Sciences, was dismissed from office and arrested. After Stalin's death in 1953, pressure on the academy eased. From 1956, researchers were once again able to focus more on research. Together with the Khrushchev Thaw, there was an opportunity to establish ties with foreign countries, and from 1956, Estonian researchers again had the opportunity to go on official trips abroad. Working conditions also improved.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the Soviet Union possesed large resources to support various fields. Science also received more financing. At the same time, this period is characterized by the subordination of all fields of activity to the control of the central government. Researchers learned to orient themselves better in these circumstances, and the research funding received by the party's decisions also improved. At the same time, the state authorities preferred to see quantity rather than quality during this period, which in turn made the activities of researchers and research institutions more complex.

After Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, attempts were made to reverse the centralization process and give more decision-making power to the local level. The general management of the sciences of the Estonian SSR were also passed from the Moscow authorities to the Tallinn ones. The activities of the Academy of Sciences hanged dramatically in 1988 and 1989. Estonian society underwent rapid changes and the Academy of Sciences did not lag behind. The 1988 General Assembly decided to amend the Articles of Association. The new statutes were adopted by the General Assembly on 6 April 1989. The Academy declared itself the legal successor of the Estonian Academy of Sciences, founded in 1938, and increased its autonomy from the institutions of the Estonian SSR and the Central Apparatus and the Soviet Academy of Sciences.

Future members of the Estonian Academy of Sciences: Richard Villems, Andres Metspalu and Mart Ustav in Professor Artur Lind's laboratory in 1982 (photo: Estonian Film Archive)

In Independent Estonia 1991-…

Building of the Estonian Academy of Sciences in the summer of 1990 (photo: Estonian Film Archive)

Estonia's independence in 1991 meant the end of the Soviet system of the Academy of Sciences, because a small country and nation lacked the resources to maintain such an apparatus. Already in 1991, the Estonian Association of Researchers called for the dismantling of the current system and the transformation of the Academy of Sciences into a personal academy. This was to be accompanied by the transfer of research institutes and other institutions of the Academy of Sciences to universities. An evaluation report was ordered from the Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1991, which was completed in 1992 and in principle supported the calls of the Association of Researchers. The Academy of Sciences was criticized for lack of communication and cooperation with universities, low publication and a complex and exaggerated structure.

In 1995, the Academy of Sciences adopted a new statute, which stated that the main activity of the Academy is to provide scientific advice. The 1995 statutes gave a major role in shaping the activities of the Academy to the President elected for five years, who was given the general management of the Academy and representative functions in Estonia and abroad. The day-to-day running of the Academy was to be organized by the Chancellery under the leadership of an elected Secretary-General for five years.

President Jüri Engelbrecht headed the academy with new statutes from 1994-2004. During his time, on 16 April 1997, the Riigikogu passed the Estonian Academy of Sciences Act, which guaranteed the Academy the status of an autonomous person in public law. In addition, the Presidents have achieved the increase of both visibility and role of the Academy in Estonian society under Presidents Engelbrecht, Richard Villems (2004-2014) and Tarmo Soomere (2014-…), and a number of research societies and institutions have been associated with the Academy. In those years, the Academy of Sciences became an important research center, within the framework of which the planning, organization and coordination of the activities of the scientific community are carried out.

Estonia's re-independence and the collapse of the Soviet Union meant major changes, but also marked the return of old traditions. On the photo: A memorial stone restoration ceremony for the fighters of the Baltic Regiment destroyed by the Soviet authorities in the courtyard of the Academy of Sciences in the 1990s (photo: Estonian Film Archive)

First Membership of the Estonian Academy of Sciences 1938–1940

NameNominatedResearch FieldDate of BirthDeceased
Hugo KAHO1938Natural Sciences15.11.188517.09.1964
Edgar KANT1938Humanities21.02.190216.10.1978
Paul KOGERMAN1938Natural Sciences05.12.189127.07.1951
Teodor LIPPMAA1939*Natural Sciences17.11.189227.01.1943
Oskar LOORITS1938Humanities09.11.190012.12.1961
Julius MARK1938Humanities27.03.189002.03.1959
Aleksander PALDROK1938Natural Sciences16.05.187101.07.1944
Ludvig PUUSEPP1938Natural Sciences03.12.187519.10.1942
Karl SCHLOSSMANN1938Natural Sciences19.02.188517. 12.1969
Hendrik SEPP1938Humanities23.03.188805.09.1943
Gustav SUITS1938Humanities30.11.188323.05.1956
Jüri ULUOTS1938Humanities13.01.189009.01.1945
Ernst ÖPIK1938Natural Sciences22.10.189310.09.1985
Honorary Members
Konstantin PÄTS1939*23.02.187418.01.1956
Johan LAIDONER1940*12.02.188413.03.1953

Members 1946-2020

NameElectedResearch FieldDate of BirthDeceased
Julius AAMISEPP1946*Root Crop Breeding01.09.188319.01.1950
Agu AARNA1961Organic Chemistry11.10.191511.12.1989
Albrecht ALTMA1946*Physics23.03.189708.05.1969
Nikolai ALUMÄE1954Structural Mechanics12.09.191527.03.1992
Richard ANTONS1951Economics11.02.189910.05.1966
Paul ARISTE1954Linguistics03.02.190502.02.1990
Harald ARMAN1946*Architecture22.05.191013.05.1965
Pavel BOGOVSKI1993Oncology10.03.191908.03.2006
Nikolai BUZULUKOV1951Economics04.05.190515.09.1979
Aleksandr DOBRJANSKI1951Chemistry26.08.188931.01.1965
Johan EICHFELD1946*Plant Cultivation and Plant Breeding26.01.189320.04.1989
Olaf EISEN1972Organic Chemistry28.04.192014.03.1989
Harald HABERMAN1946*Zoology19.12.190416.12.1986
Raimund HAGELBERG1981Economics07.02.192717.07.2012
Johannes HEIL1951Engineering15.09.189524.07.1991
Arnold HUMAL1951Mathematics10.03.190813.12.1987
Leo JÜRGENSON1946*Structural Mechanics21.01.190107.09.1986
Juhan KAHK1969History01.08.192828.06.1998
Gunnar KANGRO1961Mathematics21.11.191325.12.1975
Paul KARD1961Physics15.12.191403.09.1985
Arnold KASK1961Estonian Language10.08.190230.07.1994
Harald KERES1961Theoretical Physics15.11.191226.06.2010
Aksel KIPPER1946*Astrophysics05.11.190725.09.1984
Oskar KIRRET1961Chemistry27.11.1909 18.12.1991
Aleksandr KIUR-MURATOV1951Veterinary Science20.09.189808.03.1968
Feodor KLEMENT1951Physics30.05.1903 28.06.1973
Arnold KOOP1986History16.07.1922 21.04.1988
Alfred KOORT1946*Philosophy29.05.190128.09.1956
Ilmar KOPPEL1993Natural Sciences (Physical Chemistry)16.01.194009.01.2020
Arvo KRIKMANN1997Humanities21.07.193927.02.2017
Lembit KRUMM1987Energetics20.07.192813.12.2016
Hans KRUUS1946*History22.10.1891 30.06.1976
Valdek KULBACH1986Structural Mechanics06.04.192731.01.2020
Eerik KUMARI1961Zoology07.03.191208.01.1984
Grigori KUZMIN1961Astronomy08.04.191722.04.1988
Harri KÄÄR1994Engineering01.07.194420.04.1997
Arno KÖÖRNA1972Economics02.02.192621.12.2017
Ferdinand LAJA1946*Veterinary Science17.04.188902.01.1956
Heinrich LAUL1961Structural Engineering05.08.191016.04.1991
Ülo LEPIK1993Mechanics 11.07.192112.02.2022
Georg LIIDJA1987Physics04.08.193312.06.2017
Artur LIND1987Molecular Biology06.04.192730.11.1989
Endel LIPPMAA1972Chemical Physics15.09.193030.07.2015
Juri LOTMAN1990Semiotics of Culture28.02.192228.10.1993
Artur LUHA1946*Geology09.07.189229.12.1953
ÜLO LUMISTE1993Mathematics30.06.192920.11.2017
Tšeslav LUŠTŠIK1964Solid state physics15.02.192808.08.2020
Viktor MAAMÄGI1961History12.10.191731.05.2005
Ottomar MADDISON1946*Engineering31.03.187930.01.1959
Richard MAHL1954Chemical Technology28.08.189826.06.1964
Udo MARGNA1987Plant Physiology18.11.193417.05.2019
Viktor MASING1993Biogeography11.04.192518.03.2001
Enn MELLIKOV2003Technology of Materials01.04.194523.07.2018
Uno MERESTE1994Humanities and Social Sciences27.05.192806.12.2009
Lennart MERI2001Humanities29.03.192914.03.2006
Harri MOORA1957Archaeology02.03.190002.05.1968
Hilda MOOSBERG1951History23.11.190331.05.1985
Gustav NAAN1951Philosophy17.05.191912.01.1994
Jüri NUUT1946*Mathematics10.07.189231.05.1952
Ergo NÕMMISTE2012Exact Sciences27.06.195611.04.2019
Eve OJA2010Mathematics10.10.194827.01.2019
Karl ORVIKU1946*Geology17.07.190307.03.1981
Kalju PAAVER1969Biology16.12.192118.03.1985
Viktor PALM1978Organical Chemistry17.09.192623.01.2010
Aleksander PANKSEJEV1983History20.10.192127.11.1989
Andrus PARK1987Philosophy17.12.194914.08.1994
Erast PARMASTO1972Botany23.10.192824.04.2012
Juhan PEEGEL1977Filology19.05.191906.11.2007
Mihkel PILL1946*Grain Breeding07.01.188419.06.1951
Aarne PUNG1954Cattle Breeding30.06.190914.08.1994
Eduard PÄLL1961Estonian Language15.09.190313.06.1989
Hugo RAUDSEPP1961Organic Chemistry17.09.190006.01.1976
Anto RAUKAS1977Geology17.02.193519.04.2021
Jaan REBANE1975Philosophy13.05.192410.11.1993
Karl REBANE1961Theoretical Physics11.04.192604.11.2007
Loit REINTAM1990Soil Science12.11.192917.01.2010
Juhan ROSS1993Biogeophysics14.08.192521.06.2002
Joosep SAAT1951History30.07.190016.01.1977
Oskar SEPRE1946*Economics20.05.190023.11.1965
Ilo SIBUL1957Physiology10.02.190831.01.1979
Karl SIILIVASK1977History20.01.192718.11.2017
Helle SIMM1977Hydrobiology and Hydrochemistry23.01.192007.10.1991
Boris TAMM1972Cybernetics23.06.193005.02.2002
Vello TARMISTO1977Economics07.01.191806.11.1991
Alma TOMINGAS1946*Pharmacy15.09.190029.01.1963
Nikolai TOMSON1946*Air hygiene of residential buildings14.02.189802.04.1972
Hans-Voldemar TRASS1975Botany and Ecology02.05.192814.02.2017
Andrei TŠERNÕŠOV1951Fuel Chemistry and Energetics22.04.190422.11.1953
Friedebert TUGLAS1946*Literature02.03.188615.04.1971
Peeter TULVISTE1994Humanities and Social Sciences28.10.194511.03.2017
Enn TÕUGU1981Informatics20.05.193530.03.2020
Juhan VAABEL1946*Jurisprudence26.08.189910.04.1971
Voldemar VADI1946*Medicine25.02.189105.11.1951
August VAGA1946*Botany15.03.189311.12.1960
Artur VASSAR1961History18.11.191117.07.1977
Mihkel VEIDERMA1975Inorganic Chemistry27.12.192925.10.2018
Arnold VEIMER1957Economics20.06.190303.03.1977
Johannes Voldemar VESKI1946*Linguistics27.06.187328.03.1968
Aleksander VOLDEK1969Electrical Engineering02.04.191127.01.1977
Ilmar ÖPIK1967Thermophysics17.06.191729.07.2001

Foreign Members in Memoriam

NameElectedResearch FieldDate of BirthDeceased
Valdar JAANUSSON1991Geology30.06.192308.08.1999
Carl-Olof JACOBSON1995Zoomorphology24.04.192904.06.2018
Antero JAHKOLA1998Energy Research05.02.193110.12.2017
Matti KUUSI1991Folcloristics25.03.191416.01.1998
Ilse LEHISTE2008Linguistics31.01.192225.12.2010
Indrek MARTINSON1998Physics26.12.193714.11.2009
Gérard A. MAUGIN2002Mechanics02.12.194422.09.2016
Grigori MINTS2008Computer Sciences07.06.193929.05.2014
Endrik NÕGES1995Automatic Control05.04.192706.06.2006
Els OKSAAR1998Linguistics01.10.192609.12.2015
Jaak PEETRE2008Mathematics29.07.193501.04.2019
Johannes PIIPER1991Physiology11.11.192402.01.2012
Jānis STRADIŅŠ1998Physical Chemistry and History of Science10.12.193329.11.2019
Päiviö Tommila1991History4.08.193118.11.2022
Ivar UGI1991Chemistry05.09.193029.09.2005
Henn-Jüri UIBOPUU1995Jurisprudence11.10.192921.10.2012
Richard R. ERNST2003Physical Chemistry14.08.193304.06.2021

The residence of the Estonian Academy of Sciences (built during 1865–1868), on the slope of Toompea, is a former city residence of the prominent Ungern Sternberg noble family, is a conspicuous building in Tallinn architecture.

The palace on Toompea was commissioned by Count Ewald Alexander Andreas von Ungern-Sternberg, descending from a highly influential Baltic-German noble family. Architect of the house is Martin Philipp Gropius, from Berlin.

More about the building in "Estonian Academy of Sciences Building", see also the cover pictures of the brochure.

“Our” First Academy Members

Deciding which legendary modern researchers are “ours” is a tricky matter, the historian Andres Adamson writes.

It is hard to say how many Academy members we had before the founding of the Estonian Academy of Sciences and who they were. Or rather, this question is impossible to answer conclusively. At best, we can discuss general developments and present examples. Why?

First of all, we would have to start by defining “us”. Limiting it to only ethnic Estonians would make it relatively straightforward. Nationality is primarily a culture-based phenomenon; before the creation of Estonian-language higher education, technical vocabulary, personnel etc., following higher research ambitions required ethnically and linguistically Estonian aspirants to adopt what for all practical purposes amounted to another nationality. An Estonian-language university, science and top researchers came into being only with the establishment of our own republic a century ago. They were preceded by initiatives, efforts, preludes, and by the non-Estonian-speaking scientists in our land.

Choosing to claim as ours all scholars born in Estonia or connected to Estonia, however, opens a whole new can of worms. In many cases, nothing connects them to us but the fact, or accident, of having been born in this land. And then there were others who worked or studied at the University of Tartu, which played a fairly special role in the 19th century in particular, and yet are not “ours” in any other sense, either by origin or through integration.

Generally speaking, we are now leaving behind juvenile attitudes that are rooted in an ethnocentric mindset or a sense of inferiority, and we now consider at least the many Baltic German researchers who were born here as “ours”. But not even this small group of people is clearly defined, and the territorial approach is equally fraught with problems. If we consider Baltic Germans as a local, regional sub-ethnos (while also drawing a distinction on the basis of whether they were born in Estonia or Latvia, to include the former and exclude the latter: for example, even though one of the founders of physical chemistry, Wilhelm Friedrich Ostwald, studied and worked in Tartu, he was a Latvian German), matters are fairly clear-cut.

But some researchers otherwise connected to Estonia, including various academies’ full members, correspondent and honorary members, were born outside the home(s) of Baltic Germans in Estonia, Livonia and Courland, e.g. in the imperial capital St. Petersburg. Where would they fall in this scheme? Sometimes, we tend to count certain persons outside this sub-ethnos among Baltic Germans. For example, we consider among “our” famous explorers Admiral Friedrich Benjamin von Lütke, the President of the Saint Petersburg Academy of Sciences in 1864–1882, who also served as the military governor of Tallinn and was part of the Estonian knighthood as the landlord of Avanduse in Viru County, but who was born in St. Petersburg and had an Imperial German rather than Baltic German background. There were, and are, many Russianised Germans, such as Fjodor Petrovich Litke (as well as Russianised Swedes, Estonians, Latvians, Finns etc.), and their connections to “us” are generally indirect.

Furthermore, the “National Awakening” of the 19th century was not limited to Estonians and Latvians. Similar processes had developed among local Germans and at least educated Russians even earlier. At some indistinct time, the Baltic German people who had some roots and ancestors in common with us ceased to be “ours”, a local, Estonian and Latvian phenomenon, and became part of the larger German nation in more senses than that of a shared written language and cultural sphere. Initially, in mind only, they became part of Germany. They became German by their attitudes and goals: in a word, politically.

By the way, political Greater Germanism, German nationalism in the aggressive form that characterised it before and during the world wars, developed nearby, initially largely related to the University of Königsberg and with vigorous offshoots in Riga and later at Tartu University, at the edges of the German linguistic and cultural sphere, formerly (as in East Prussia, Pomerania and Brandenburg) and contemporarily (as in Latvia and Estonia) predominantly non-German areas, and essentially colonised land.

The more conservative Baltic Germans, often with higher status, particularly Estonian Knighthood, discouraged the change, yet they were quickly outnumbered. At that point, local language communities parted ways and place of birth lost its former meaning in separating us from them and ours from others.

Should we consider the nationally and politically German scientists who were born and worked in Estonia after the break as ours? Subconsciously, we probably do, but not otherwise, no matter how famous and successful they were and how many academies they were members of.

For example, the great German historian Johannes Haller (16 October 1865, Käina – 24 December 1947, Tübingen), probably the single most renowned German historian in the 1920s and 1930s, was the son of a pastor and was born in Käina in 1865, grew up on the island of Hiiumaa, studied at the University of Tartu and worked in Estonia for another couple of years; he was a full, foreign and honorary member of multiple academies and scientific societies; despite all that, we would be hard pressed to consider him one of “our” people who had worked abroad. Barely anybody in Estonia outside a small group of specialists has even heard of him.

Similar questions could be asked of local Russian scientists; furthermore, unlike in the case of Baltic Germans with whom our ways parted for good eight decades ago, these questions would still be relevant and topical.

In short: the matter must be approached on a case-by-case basis, non-formally. For the sake of balance, let’s consider (as food for thought) an opposing example: is the foreign-born, Russian-speaking Jewish scientist Juri Lotman, the founder of an entire academic school at the University of Tartu and in Estonian research, one of “ours” or not? This question was settled long ago by his election as a Member of the Estonian Academy of Sciences, but it exemplifies the matter well.

The historian Andres Adamson. Photo: Reti Kokk.

Next, we need to define who and what we consider to be an academy and members of an academy. The origin of the term “academy” is well established. The philosophy school founded by Plato in Athens, and called an academy, persisted for over nine hundred years in spite of multiple interruptions and changes in form, until it was finally ended by Emperor Justinian in 529 AD. The name “academy” was later adopted in early higher education and was reborn during the renaissance as a term for scientific, or, in a broader sense, cultural societies. Many such societies subsequently came into being and disappeared, especially in the Romantic era; some of those focused specifically on sciences, but most harboured more general cultural ambitions.

Below, we will consider the previously mentioned Saint Petersburg Academy of Sciences. It was formally established in 1724 by Peter the Great and came into being in 1725 during the reign of Catherine I as an academy of sciences and “interesting” arts. A dedicated Academy of Arts was created only in 1757/1764. The first ethnically Estonian academy members were members of academies of arts rather than of sciences: an early example is Johann Köler in Saint Petersburg.

During certain periods of the 19th century, the University of Tartu was the sole scientific university in the entire Russian Empire. Pictured: the main building of the University of Tartu in the last quarter of the 19th century. Photo: The National Archives of Estonia.

In our land, the creation of the first academies, in the sense of learned societies, was delayed by a cultural interruption arising from the Reformation and took place only in the mid-17th century. Estonia was part of the Swedish Empire at the time and the initiative was led by the young, intellectually curious Queen Christina. The formerly poor and backwards Sweden began to change and develop during her reign. The constant foreign wars initially enriched only the upper class, but the loot carried off from Saxony and Bohemia and stored in the treasuries in Stockholm during the Thirty Years’ War included numerous books, paintings, sculptures and other objects of culture waiting to be put to good use; learned refugees arrived in the country and the Swedes’ cultural horizons started to expand.

Among other foreign intellectuals, the Queen managed to persuade the great René Descartes to join her court specifically for the purpose of founding an academy of sciences in 1649. Descartes, a Frenchman, soon caught a cold in the foreign climate (the story has it that he was dashing across a courtyard, lightly dressed, to heed the Queen’s sudden call, but this is unlikely since they managed no more than a couple of brief meetings) and died of pneumonia, but he had submitted a plan in 1650 and the new society met a few times. It is likely that the Swedish polymath, cultural hero, poet and bully Georg Stiernhielm (1598–1672), who had spent his best decades in Tartu as an assessor at the Livonian hovrätt court, a member of the Landrat and the owner of the Vasula manor, was involved. Does that make him one of “our” first academy members or not?

Christina abdicated her throne soon afterwards, converted to Catholicism, made her home in Rome, founded at least three more academies, offered the garden of her palace by the Tiber (the Palazzo Corsini) as a meeting place for another academy, supported two more and, after her death in 1689, the influential, mainly literary Accademia dell’Arcadia was (re-)established in her memory. Christina retained her ties to our land during her life abroad, partly because Saaremaa was part of her retainment (underhållsland). Therefore, some of our countrymen could theoretically have been involved in her academies. But let us not found our hopes on such a slim chance, nor delude ourselves about the level of advancement of the period.

Let’s take, for example, the University of Tartu – or rather the Tartu-Tallinn-Tartu-Pärnu Academy – during the Swedish times. How many doctoral theses are known to have been defended there? The correct answer is none. Or let’s consider the story of Christina’s first academy in Rome, the Accademia Reale, which discussed whether day or night, sunshine or moonlight, was the most conducive to poetic inspiration. The great scientific conclusion that moonlight was best was celebrated with a ballet starring the twelve hours of night and a star.

The current Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences was founded only in 1739. Almost from the outset, it included Baltic German members, later on people specifically connected to Estonia, and in recent decades even Estonians.

We can speak more confidently about Academy members of Estonian origin in the Saint Petersburg Academy of Sciences. This Academy was established in the brand new capital of the Russian Empire in part because the reputation of a developing major power that would exercise an influence in European affairs seemed to require the existence of an academy (everybody else had one!), and in part in the long-term view to modernise Russia and bring it culturally closer to Europe. The material base of the Academy – books, instruments and objects of art – had been looted from the Baltics during the war or bought in Europe, the buildings, still standing, were constructed on the Universitetskaya (University) Embankment at the River Neva (the Academy itself, however, has been based in Moscow for the last century), and the state provided the finances.

Initially consisting of foreign invitees (including thinkers such as the mathematicians and engineers Johan Bernoulli and Leonhard Euler), the Academy intended to train its own future members. For that purpose, it was supplemented with the first academic gymnasium in Russia and a very small university, initially with just a few and later with about twenty students. Russia did not yet have any researchers in the Western sense. They had to be trained.

The Russian cultural model had been completely different before Peter the Great’s time. Western products, skills, know-how and experts had simply been imported as necessary. This is far from unique in history and continues well into the present: let’s consider, for instance, the Muslim world (not during the early or later Medieval period, but in the Age of Oil), or Sweden under Queen Christina.

The first four presidents of the Saint Petersburg Academy were foreigners. The first, Laurentius Blumentrost, was a Russian-born German; the next two, Hermann Karl von Keyserling and Johann Albrecht von Korff, were Courlanders, and their successor, Carl Hermann von Breven, had been born in Riga. None of the presidents were, in fact, scientists. Blumentrost was one of the czar’s personal doctors and the other three were diplomats. This lent significant weight to the role of the Academy’s chancellor, advisor and secretary, a post long filled by the Alsace-born Academy member Johann Daniel Schumacher. Also German (though from an area ruled by France), Schumacher maintained his leading role for decades; the position of president even stayed empty for a time.

Wilhelm Ostwald was born and raised in Riga, his father had come to Livonia from Germany and the family’s roots were in Hessen and Berlin. He is currently the only Nobel Prize winner who graduated from the University of Tartu. Photo: The National Archives of Estonia.

The following story captures the spirit of the period in which “our” first “real” Academy member lived and worked. Late on the evening of 26 September 1742, by the Gregorian calendar, a small gathering was underway at the Academy’s herbal garden caretaker Johann Sturm’s home. The small flat, consisting of two rooms and a space in the attic, was situated on Vasilyevsky Island, Line 2, on the ground floor of a wooden block of flats used by the Academy. The ground floor was the building’s only floor; below it stood a heated cellar (later used as a chemistry lab by the famous Lomonossov) and above it the aforementioned attic; the other two flats had five and three rooms, respectively. The building, designed by Schumacher’s younger brother (a reasonably good architect whose work is known to this day), had formerly belonged to the Academy’s previous president, Brevern (the position was vacant at the time).

Academy Member Friedrich Smith joining in a toast at the international geology congress of 1897. Photo: The National Archives of Estonia.

The other guests shared to a greater or lesser extent the host’s background: Baltic or Imperial Germans who had come to Saint Petersburg in the hope of finding well-paid positions and forging careers; not of noble descent, they were reasonably well-educated and had done well for themselves in Russia. The host’s Russian wife was heavily pregnant and even his father-in-law was present. The evening was well underway, there was plenty of food and drink and the spirits ran high. Collars were loosened, and wigs taken off and hung on a special stand. Deep in conversation, the guests initially ignored the sudden commotion in the hallway.

Suddenly, the door flew wide open and a glowering giant strode in. Though clad in the Western fashion, complete with a gentleman’s straight sword on his hip, he was clearly Russian. Behind the man, the Sturms’ Russian maid was nursing a black eye and a bleeding ear, sniffling and holding together a ripped blouse; the uninvited guest’s manservant hovered further back. The startled attendees recognised the Sturms’ neighbour in the three-room flat, a famously ill-tempered man.

The party-crasher cast a stormy look across the room and roared at Sturm that the latter’s lowlife guests had stolen his cape. The genteel petite bourgeois Germans were stunned into silence, until one of them, Doctor Braschke, a medic at the Ingrian infantry regiment, pointed out that such accusations were unbefitting of decent people. The ruffian wasted no more time talking, punched the good doctor in the face, got hold of the wig stand and started pummelling the guests with it, calling the manservant to his aid.

The hapless Sturm knew he wasn’t a match for the man, jumped out of the window and ran down the street in search of patrolling soldiers. Another guest, a functionary at the Kammerkontor for Livonian and Estonian affairs (a state institution roughly equivalent to a current ministry, which was designed to handle matters pertaining to the local nobility that had its own language, religion, laws and affairs), Johann Donart, followed suit. He was ultimately the one who fetched the guards.

The Estonian Academy of Sciences was founded in 1938. The average age of its members was slightly above 50 in 1938; half of the members had received their higher education outside Estonia and four had fought in the Estonian War of Independence. Pictured: the first meeting of Academy Members in Tartu on 20 April 1938. Photo: The National Archives of Estonia.

The scoundrel had meanwhile shattered a mirror, repeatedly punched the pregnant lady of the house and called her a tramp, pulled his sword, wounded a few guests and put a dent in the door. The fight had spilled into the courtyard; the guests had managed to draw their swords, inflict a few light scratches on the villain and blacken his eye. The arrival of the guards brought momentary calm, but when one of the soldiers demanded that the aggressor surrender his sword, the latter punched the soldier in the face and tried to draw his blade again. He was subdued through a group effort and taken away.

At the main guard post, the detainee maintained a challenging attitude, rejected any blame and insisted that neither the police nor the regular judicial authorities were competent to handle him. Matters pertaining to him lay in the sole purview of the office of the Academy of Sciences, because, gentlemen, he was a member of the “academic conference”. He was taken under guard to his requested destination two days later, and, to general astonishment, he walked out a while later as a free man. His short way home took him past Mrs Sturm, whom he insulted and promised bloody revenge for the injustice done to him. Another two days went by and he was summoned to the Academy office by the Academy secretary Schumacher. Our bully responded that he could not come and requested that a doctor be sent. Schumacher dispatched Doctor Wilde at once.

In fact, the scandalous blackguard was the Academy’s physics adjunct Mikhail Lomonossov, who knew all too well that Schumacher – whom Russian-language history has consistently, misleadingly, yet likely intentionally depicted as Lomonossov’s relentless foe – would protect him no matter what. Lomonossov was the Academy’s long-time de facto head’s personal (though in hindsight, Greater Russian, and hence national) project, a young man personally selected by Schumacher many years before for his many obvious talents, whom the chancellor intended to make – and soon did make – the first Russian professor and the first Russian full member of the Academy.

That was the purpose for which Lomonossov had been taught at the Academy’s gymnasium and tiny university, dispatched to German universities, brought back with great difficulty and forgiven for all manner of sins. Lomonossov responded to the good will with a singularly characteristic arrogance, contempt and lack of gratitude, which in any other case, with any other benefactor, would have seen the man kicked to the curb.

Barely a week later, the Academy underwent a temporary coup. Schumacher’s enemies accused him of wasting the crown’s money and sundry other sins; he was put under house arrest and his activities were investigated. Lomonossov has been thought to have initiated the whole ordeal, but this is probably not true; after brief consideration, however, he realised which way the wind was blowing and joined Schumacher’s opponents. His gambit failed: the investigating committee concluded a few months later that the only shortcoming in the Academy’s huge household was the disappearance of a hundred roubles’ worth of spirit. The wheel turned and Schumacher was reinstated. It does not take a great deal of imagination to guess Lomonossov’s response.

Lomonossov (and more so his biographers) made a point of highlighting his Russian-ness, because that was ultimately the foundation of his career. No matter how talented – and there is no doubt that he was talented – without the previously described support, his foul character, fuelled by binge drinking, would have forever denied him the self-actualisation opportunities that made him famous. His anti-German attitudes also didn’t hurt.

As stated, his success was rooted in his Russian origin; this required that he be contrasted with non-Russians, and most of the non-Russians at the Saint Petersburg Academy were Germans. They were initially Imperial, and later Baltic Germans. On the one hand, that is all there is to say. On the other hand, Lomonossov himself had long studied and lived in Germany and had even married a German woman – in the reformed, i.e. Calvinist church, no less, blowing off the Russian Orthodox faith entirely – he had Imperial and Baltic German friends, etc.

One of these friends was probably the first Estonian-born Academy member in a sense close to the current meaning of the term, Georg Wilhelm Richmann (1711–1753) from Pärnu. He was the first who was definitely “ours”; furthermore, far from being a poet or other suspicious humanities type, he was a physicist, an inventor, an experimental researcher, and a martyr for science! The Saint Petersburg Academy was a national institution, the only contemporary research institution in the Russian Empire, and in the general sense, all of its academic staff were commonly called Academy Members.

In the stricter sense, only professors were considered to be Academy Members: after all, the Saint Petersburg Academy was also an institution of higher education. Member of the Academy was a position rather than a title. Regular professorships were few and far between, and those who had reached the necessary education level could be appointed as adjuncts (junior researchers or lecturers, usually pre-thesis defence) and later professors extraordinarius (now docent) until a full professorship became available. Richmann had been accepted into the Academy in 1735, first as a student, then, in 1740, as an adjunct, in 1741 as an extraordinary and in 1745 as a regular physics professor: a Member of the Academy in the strict sense of the word. His peer and friend Lomonossov became a chemistry professor in the same year.

Richmann’s main source of renown is his death at work carrying out a scientific experiment. Atmospheric electricity was among his many research interests and he had invented the lightning rod at the same time as the American Benjamin Franklin had; however, rather than safe grounding of the lightning to eliminate fire hazard, the goal of his invention was “canning” the strikes. Quite literally so: his equipment of choice was the Leyden jar, the first means of preserving an electrical charge, which had been invented by two independent researchers in 1745–1746. Richmann equipped the jar with a metallic electrometer with a silk pointer, which he kept on improving through experiments. In 1752, Franklin had proposed that it might be possible to catch lightning using metal rods or wire; he had carried out experiments using a kite and grounding wire, and similar tests had already been conducted in France.

It is unclear whether Richmann had heard about the experiments or had come up with the same idea independently, but he was conducting similar tests at about the same time. On 6 August 1753, upon hearing approaching thunder, he hurried home from the Academy and set up his “lightning machine”. Richmann succeeded in catching a lightning strike with the iron rod and wire set up on his rooftop, but this time ball lightning came forth from the ungrounded device. It struck his forehead with a loud bang, killing him and even bursting the shoes on his feet. His assistant, Ivan Sokolov, better known as a copper engraver, who was in the same room but at some distance, was thrown over in his chair and deafened temporarily, but was otherwise unharmed.

Member of the Academy Ferdinand Johann Wiedemann did great service on the research of the Estonian language. A language prize bearing his name has been awarded to recognise notable researchers of the Estonian language since 1989. Photo: The National Archives of Estonia.

The role of the Saint Petersburg Academy gradually changed as new universities were established in Russia: first Moscow University in 1755, with the next ones nearly half a century later. This is where the University of Tartu, which was reopened in 1802, and its special role came in. Lacking a language barrier with the German-speaking cultural and research space, the University of Tartu remained essentially the only research university in the Russian Empire for decades. Other universities were more concerned with teaching existing materials than researching new knowledge. That is also why the Professors’ Institute, where lecturers for other Russian higher education institutions were trained, operated in Tartu for a period of time.

Meanwhile, the Saint Petersburg Academy of Sciences relinquished its functions as a higher education institution, while remaining a kind of ministry of research. Regular and extraordinary professors were replaced with regular and extraordinary Members of the Academy, each of whom was tasked with a set of duties full of bureaucratic routines. While the Academy had some correspondent members, accepting the position of a regular Member of the Academy required resigning from any other positions and moving to Saint Petersburg (with certain exceptions, such as the Tartu University astronomer Friedrich Georg Wilhelm Struve, also commonly considered to be one of “ours”, who was, in fact, an Imperial German). Not all of those who were offered the position of Academy Member were necessarily inclined to accept it; therefore, the election of each member had to be preceded by advance preparations, discussions and job interviews.

The Struve family was originally from near Hamburg. They are frequently considered to be Estonian researchers despite their origin. Pictured: Friedrich Georg Wilhelm Struve’s astronomer son Otto in his old age. Photo: The National Archives of Estonia.

Concerned by the turmoil of the French Revolution, Russia was meanwhile distancing itself from the world, the proportion of foreign researchers recruited to the Academy from Europe was decreasing and the role of domestic researchers whose backgrounds, due to the reasons explained above, were commonly related to Tartu was increasing. These researchers formed an absolute majority among natural scientists in particular for a long period of time. The majority decreased over time, but the situation remained stable until the second half of the 19th century.

In total, roughly a hundred scholars from Estonia or who had close ties to Estonia were elected members of the Saint Petersburg Academy of Sciences during the Russian Empire. Researchers, such as the polymath Karl Ernst von Baer, primarily known as the founder of the research field of embryology, the physicist Heinrich Friedrich Emil Lenz, the geologist Gregor von Helmersen, the biogeographer, explorer, zoologist and agronomist Alexander Theodor von Middendorff (who was born in Saint Petersburg, but whose mother was Estonian, a fact that he neither advertised nor denied), and the linguist Ferdinand Johann Wiedemann, who created an Estonian-German dictionary whose influence on our language lasts to this day, need no further introduction.

The balance began to shift during the last third of the century, partly due to the general Russianisation efforts of the imperial government, which led to the Russianisation of the University of Tartu and an emigration wave among Baltic German intellectuals to Germany, and partly through the influence of other developments and regressions briefly touched on above. But the following period is a matter for another story.