Natural and agricultural sciences in the Republic of Estonia

It must be admitted that, after independence, fundamental sciences and natural sciences remained dormant in many respects due to a national narrow-mindedness, as well as a lack of means. The emissaries of the Rockefeller Foundation who visited Estonia in 1933 pointed out that in the medical department of the university, which once enjoyed world fame, only three scientists were engaged in fundamental sciences: the neurosurgeon Ludvig Puusepp, the physiologist Maks Tiitso (1900-1944) and the pharmacologist Georg Barkan (1889-1945).

Symptomatic of the intrusion of nationalism into the life of science is the fate of a German-speaking Jew, Barkan, who was deprived of his chair in 1938 because of the wish of the Estonian authorities to establish ‘national pharmacology’. Later Barkan emigrated.

In connection with the pre-war Estonian Republic, agricultural sciences, which so far have remained in the background in the present discussion, must be mentioned. The Generally Useful and Economic Society of Livonia, which had witnessed the birth of the University at the beginning of the 19th century, had already seen as the aim of its activities the elevation of the level of local agriculture. Other similar ‘societies’ emerged in the territory of Estonia and soon nationally-minded figures began to educate the rural people in this domain; Carl Robert Jakobson’s farm in Kurgja was actually a model farm.

Agricultural sciences occupied a prominent position in the academic life of the 19th century. Based on the requirements for enrolment at the University in some specialities, separate educational institutions were established in Tartu (e.g. the Institute of Veterinary, 1873-1917).

In independent Estonia, in the autarkist society peculiar to that epoch, much attention was paid to the cultivation of the homeland. As a result of the activities of leading agricultural scientists, who amongst other things were educated abroad, several scientific institutions were founded. An experimental station for the cultivation of marshy soil was established in Tooma, and Jõgeva Plant Breeding Station was founded; Mihkel Pill (1884-1951) was a long-time director of the latter. He was the author of the first Estonian handbook to introduce the teaching of heredity; it was published in 1913. Applied institutions of agriculture were also set up at Tartu University: for example, the forest district of the University in Järvselja and the experimental farm in Raadi.

Although scientifically based nature protection had emerged, the contemporary line of thinking dictated the mentality of the transformation of nature: ‘Human life is, on the one hand, a struggle for existence with other people, but at the same time, to a great extent, a struggle with nature ... The contest of a nation with its territory through ethnic identity means geographical individualisation, the formation of their own land for themselves and by themselves. In this way, that which we call culture becomes the yardstick for the condition that a nation has achieved as a result of the organised struggle with nature for the space of living.’

This quotation is from Edgar Kant (1902-1978), a disciple of Johannes Gabriel Granö, whose studies of town geography introduced a new methodology, laying the foundation for this discipline in Europe and elsewhere in the world. In 1944, Kant emigrated, continuing high level scientific work after having left Estonia. Considering Estonian scientists who were able to continue professional activities in their field in foreign environments, it must be admitted that they were few. Besides Kant, these included the botanist and researcher of plant disease Elmar Leppik (1898-1978), who had been working in Raadi, and the forest scientist Andres Mathiesen (1890-1955); of medical doctors, these included the director of the Academy of Science before the war, bacteriologist Karl Schlossmann (1895-1969); in the humanities, these included Andres Saareste and Gustav Ränk. Astronomer Ernst Öpik (1893-1985) was probably the most eminent Estonian scientist of the interwar period. He was a pioneer in extra-galaxy astronomy and the first to have assumed that thermonuclear processes were taking place in stars. Öpik had already emigrated (he worked at Harvard University) before the war and spent the last years of his life in Northern Ireland. Theodor Lippmaa (1892-1943), who unfortunately was killed during the bombing of Tartu, had introduced a new perspective trend in the natural sciences in the pre-war period. Lippmaa's theory of biocenoses is a substantial basis of modern plant ecology.

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