The merits and deficiencies of national science

The development of Estonian identity falls in the period when the ‘biologised’ approach to social affairs was prevalent. The teachings of Darwin, as well as the theory of degeneration, had suggested the conception that the processes of human society could be explained with the help of natural sciences.

As a matter of fact, Social Darwinism did not suggest a promising perspective for Estonians, preaching the right of the more vigorous as it were, yet the ‘biologised’ world view did offer a certain amount of leeway. ‘The nation without history’ was given a chance to appeal to the ‘laws of the natural history’. The psychiatrist Juhan Luiga (1873-1927), who has left his mark on the history of national science and thought, wrote in 1909, ‘Laws of nature follow their own way and even the largest states have to tremble before them’, adding that ‘the estimating of events in the life of nations should move from the present traditional and historical standpoint to the grounds of natural science.’

The ‘biologisation’ of the concept of the Estonian nation at the turn of the century is revealed in the concern for the slow growth of the population, as well as in the spread of the ideas of eugenics. The imperative of Estonian national thought, formulated by Jakob Hurt, which stated that Estonians should become great (at least) in spirit, was not easy to follow after all. There were numerous obstacles, such as the unwelcoming attitude towards Estonians in the German-oriented, and later Russian-oriented, university, the too-practical mentality of the first generation of intellectuals, who came predominantly from among the peasantry, and the lack of a language of science. To all of these were added the racist or eugenic attitudes arising from the contemporary mentality. The assumed obligation to account for the knowledge of the rest of the world was seen as having a certain devaluating impact on the scientific activity of the developing national elite. Popularising became a serious rival and impediment to ‘science proper’. Popularised versions attracted plenty of readers, but there was a lack of writers. For example, the magazine Tervis (Health) was closed down in 1913 for this very reason.

It was stated in 1917 that the principle of ‘acquire and hand down’ in Estonian science was to be rejected in order to move on to the principle of ‘acquire, create and hand down’. The latter was adopted in the first years of independence, when the ‘national sciences’ began to develop rapidly. Independent statehood made possible the transition from the basis of a ‘biological’ nation among ‘the nations with a history’. In that situation, national ‘grand men’ were needed and they were sought from among scientists.

One of the men who met the criteria was definitely Ludvig Puusepp (1875-1942), a neurologist whose heyday as a scientist was in the period before the Revolution in St Petersburg, where he had been promoted to the position of Director of the neurology institute. Although Puusepp was a representative of the chirurgical epoch, when the era of pharmacotherapy had already begun in neurology, it was his energy and connections which made the neurological clinic of Tartu University a scientific institution of international scale. In the interwar period it was unique. Professor Aleksander Paldrok (1871-1944) was proclaimed ‘the saviour of mankind’ by the domestic press. His method of treatment of lepers at first seemed to assure recovery of patients.

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