Preparatory work to the opening of the university had already started in March 1918. The head of the commission formed by the Estonian Provisional Government, Peeter Põld, was appointed the university’s curator (later a professor of pedagogy, the Pro-Rector, and a doctor honoris causa). On 1 December 1919 the university opened its doors as Tartu University of the Republic of Estonia with Estonian as the language of instruction, where new subjects that laid the basis for the development and research of national Estonian culture were taught. At first there were not enough lecturers and in order to alleviate the situation scientists and lecturers from abroad were invited: Lauri Ketttunen, Ilmari Manninen, Aarne Miikael Tallgren and Arno Rafael Cederberg from Finland; Johannes Gabriel Granö and Sten Karling from Sweden; and Walter Anderson and others from Germany.

Several researcher-lecturers won world renown: Ludvig Puusepp, Aleksander Paldrok, Artur Valdes and Heinrich Koppel in medicine; Teodor Lippmaa, a geobotanist; Johannes Piiper, a zoologist; linguists Johannes Aavik, Andres Saareste, Julius Mägiste; Harri Moora, an historian; Ernst Öpik, an astronomer; and Paul Kogermann, a chemist.