On 30 June 1632, the King Gustav II Adolf of Sweden signed the Foundation Decree of Academia Dorpatensis, which marks the beginning of our university’s distinguished history.

1632-1710 Academica Dorpatensis/Tartu University during the time of Swedish rule

The first students enrolled 20-21 April 1632. The opening ceremony of Academia Dorpatensis (Academia Gustaviana) took place on 15 October in the same year. The academy in Tartu functioned with philosophy, law, theology and medical faculties on the basis of of the University of Uppsala privileges. On account of the Russian-Swedish War the University of Tartu moved to Tallinn in 1656 and in 1665 it closed down.

In 1690 Tartu became a university town again. Academia Gustavo-Carolina moved shortly after from Tartu to Pärnu as a result of the coalition against Sweden and the Great Famine of 1695-1697. Academia Gustavo-Carolina, which had opened in Pärnu on 28 August 1699, was closed because of the surrender to Russian forces on 12 August 1710 during the Northern War. According to the terms of the capitulation act the Russians had agreed to keep the university in Pärnu.

In the 17th century, future outstanding Swedish scientists Urban Hiärne, Olof Verelius, Arvid Moller and others studied at the university. Among the academic staff were: Friedrich Menius, professor of history (the history of Livonia, the first scientific approach to Estonian folklore); Sven Dimberg, professor of mathematics (the first in the world to deliver lectures based on Newton’s theory); Olaus Hermelin, professor of rhetoric and poetry; and Lars Micrander, professor of medicine (the founder of balneology, the discoverer of natural mineral water springs).

At the end of the 17th century the university’s mentality and outlook on the world had a strong impact on Descartes’ philosophy.

With the opening of Academia Gustaviana’s printing press in 1631 (it was opened at the secondary school of Tartu, the university’s predecessor) the era of book printing in Estonia began. About 1,300 volumes were published.


1802-1918 Kaiserliche Universität zu Dorpat/Imperial Tartu University

At the end of the 18th century the political and educational interests of the Russian central government and the Baltic-German elite coincided. On 21-22 April 1802 the university was reopened in Tartu as a provincial Baltic university dependent upon the local knighthoods – it was entitled Kaiserliche Universität zu Dorpat (also Imperatorskij Derptskij Universitet). The foundation act confirmed by Alexander I, on 12 December 1802, gave the university the legal status of a russian state university, with German as the language of instruction. In the years 1828-1838 future professors for the universities in Russia were taught at the Tartu University Professors’ Institute. In 1803 the lectureship of the Estonian language was established and in the year 1838 the Learned Estonian Society (Gelehrte Estnische Gesellschaft) was founded at the university.

Tartu University developed dynamically in the years 1820-1890. The years 1855-1880 were considered to be an inward-looking era of academic life but the graduates, on the contrary, considered it to be a second renaissance. Moritz Hermann Jacobi, the inventor of galvanoplastics; Karl Ernst von Baer, the founder of the theory of evolution and contemporary embryology; Wilhelm Ostwald, the founder of physical chemistry and the discoverer of salt effects; Alexander Schmidt, the founder of the fermentation theory of blood coagulation and blood transfusion principles; and many others studied and taught at Tartu University.

The first student organisations began to appear as corporations of fellow countrymen which were officially banned in the years 1824-1855, but in 1862 the corporate student body was legalised. The student caps worn with organisation colours, and which attracted attention in the streets of Tartu, were one of the symbols of student culture.

In 1870 Estonian students began to get organised, first meeting at literary evenings where chapters of the epic Kalevipoeg were recited. During these evenings the Estonian Students’ Society (known as ‘Vironia’ in the years 1873-1881) was established. In 1884, the flag of the Estonian Students’ Society – a blue, black and white tricolour – was consecrated.

Tartu University held a monopoly on higher education in the western provinces of the Russian Empire, forming close relationships in the east with the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg and in the west with German universities. In the wave of russification which started in 1889, Tartu University was converted into a traditional higher education establishment, Imperatorskij Jur’evskij Universitet. In 1895, Russian was introduced as the language of instruction. In spite of the great changes in the student body and academic teaching staff, Tartu University, as a Russian university, remained an international centre of science. What made Tartu University unique throughout Russia was its role in educating distinguished scientists in every field of research and high-ranking officials for the Empire, especially in the fields of law and diplomacy.

In the turmoil of World War I, the university’s academic life was interrupted by several stages of evacuation of students and professors and the university’s property. In the spring of 1918, the Russian university was closed down and what is known as the ‘voluntary departure of the Russians’ opened up the path to a new provincial university, which was planned to be opened by the German occupation forces – Landesuniversität in Dorpat, in the Baltic Duchy. It was called the Land University, which was opened on 15 September 1918, but after a couple of months it was forced to put an end to its activities. On 27 November 1918, the commander of the military forces delegated power over Tartu University to a commission formed by the Estonian Provisional Government.

NB! The dates in this article are given according to the old calendar that was used in Estonia.