The life of science in the 18th century

Although the capitulation agreement of the local nobility included a clause which stipulated the continuation of the activities of the university, it was not observed for long. However, the seeds of education had been sown. The cultivation of amateur sciences had already begun in the 17th century and, in this connection, researchers of the Estonian language, whose activities in developing the Estonian literary language continued into the 18th century, may be mentioned. Mention could be made here of Anton Thor Helle (1683-1748) and his treatise on Estonian grammar and a dictionary published in 1732, as well as the Bible translation published in 1739, which started the process of the North Estonian literary language to develop into the official means of communication of Estonians.

In the 18th century, a more professional approach to science was introduced by the Academy of Sciences, which was established in St Petersburg in 1724 and which the first men of Estonian origin joined in the 1730s. At the end of the 18th century (1792), the first scientific society of the Baltic provinces was founded in Riga: The Generally Useful and Economic Society of Livonia (it was transferred to Tartu in 1813).

The manor culture, which began to include industrial undertakings, home teachers and other progressive factors, was the mechanism which supported the educational and academic life in Estonia. Besides larger towns, one should mention Põltsamaa, which had become an industrial centre and where the first periodical publication in Estonian, ‘A brief teaching wherein some good remedies are made known for treating the illnesses and injuries of both men and oxen so that he who needs may understand how he should seek advice and what is to be heeded with regard to every illness’, was issued by Peter Ernst Wilde (1732-1785). The aim of the publication was to introduce to the rural people health care questions, as well as basic practices of medicine (including the early form of vaccination, variolation).

A lack of larger industries left its mark on the local academic life: until the beginning of the 20th century, technical sciences were poorly represented in Estonia.

At the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, scientific description of the local nature and people began. August Wilhelm Hupel (1737-1819) began to publish academic collections in Põltsamaa (the first of them was Topographishce Nachrichten von Lief- und Estland, 1774-1782) which included topics ranging from history to ethnography. An atlas compiled by Ludwig August Mellin (1754-1835) has been preserved, dating from 1794 to 1798. Also from the close of the same century, there are the first overviews of flora, fauna and avifauna. It was in 1776 that the Estonians were described from an anthropological perspective. Karl Ernst von Baer (1792–1876) made an attempt to describe the health state of the rural people in the spirit of his era in 1814, and an overview of folk medicine in Saaremaa was published in 1823 and 1829 by Johann Wilhelm Ludwig Luce (1756–1842), a versatile scholar and enlightener. The first phase of ‘Estonian science’ had begun, with the Estonian rural people and their life-style being the object of research. During the century preceding the reopening of Tartu University in 1802, about 90 people were involved in academic work in the territory of Estonia. For young people, the main education centres were Jena, Halle, Göttingen, Rostock and Greifswald. The number of those who had graduated from universities in Germany was growing and many intellectuals, also the ‘state Germans’, in their search for occupation, found themselves in the German-speaking provinces on the coast of the Baltic Sea.

The tightening contacts between the Baltic provinces and Europe were threatened after the French Revolution, when the Russian authorities began to restrict the possibilities of acquiring education abroad. For the Baltic Germans, who by that time had gained prominence in Russian society – for example, half of those who had acquired doctorates in medicine came from Estonia and Livonia – it was a problem. The solution was found in establishing a university in their ‘Heimat’. As Kurland Duchy, which could boast of a renowned higher education institution, the Academia Petrina, established in 1775, had been acceded to Russia in 1795, there was a short ‘race’ between the Kurland centre Jelgava (Mitau) and Tartu (Dorpat); victory went to the latter.

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