Tartu University was founded by King Gustavus II Adolphus of Sweden in 1632. It was then known as Universitas Dorpatensis. The University developed into a major center of science, education and humanities among the Baltic countries and Finland in the 17th century. Because of its geophysical location and the strength of its educational mission, by the early 1800’s Tartu University became an important intermediary link in science and cultural exchange between Europe to its west and in Russia to its east. In its relatively long history, major accomplishments stand out: G.W.W. Struve, a well known astonomer of that time (1818-1839) developed the Tartu observatory and had the world’s largest refracting telescope installed there. Struve completed multiple studies on double and multiple stars during his tenure as Director of the Observatory and in 1837 was the first to calculate the distance to Vega.
During this same time period and extending to the early part of the 20th century the Medical Faculty of Tartu University was a major center in the development of medicine as a science and served to train doctors for Estonia, as well as for all of Russia. In addition, many of the graduates of Medicine at Tartu worked as professors at universities throughout Europe, as well as in Russia. In the 1800’s pharmaceutical chemistry was exceptionally strong. Prominent chemists as A. Scherer, D. Grindel, and Giese worked in Tartu. Prof. Claus began his studies there that led to his eventual discovery of the element of ruthenium . Multiple well known chemists studied and did research at Tartu between 1850 to 1936. Among these are Prof. Bunge and his student W. Ostwald who became a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry. In the field of physiology the work of H.A.A. Schmidt on the physiology and biochemistry of blood gained world-wide recognition. Well known was the research of G. Bunge in the field of nutritional physiology and whose student Lunin was the first to lay the foundation of a group of substances that were essential for growth and became known as vitamins. In the middle of the 19th century R. Buchheim laid the foundation of experimental pharmacology at Tartu and his textbook of pharmacology became a standard on modern pharmacology. Buchheim’s work was continue by J.E. Schmiedeberg and his experimental pharmacology laboratory was well known in the field.
In the early to mid part of the 19th century, the study of the natural sciences at Tartu gained prominence. M. Schleiden, one of the founders of the cell theory, taught in Tartu. Karl Ernst von Baer who became known as the “Father of Modern Embryology” was born and grew up in Estonia and received his training at Tartu. He then went to Germany where he gained prominence in the field through his studies on the early embryo. Among his contributions was the discovery of the human ovum, studies of the chorda dorsalis, or the notochord, and descriptions of his studies to show that all cells of the different tissue types arise from three embryonic germ layers . He contributed greatly to evolutionary embryology through his book History of Evolution where he writes “Are not all animals in the beginning of their development essentially alike, and is there not a primary form common to all?” After he retired from his research in Germany, he returned to Tartu where his former home still stands and is now the Center for Science Studies which was established in 1976.
During the Soviet occupation, Tartu University, as all behind the Iron Curtain, was cut off from the West. During this time, however, the fields of molecular biology and cellular biology were emphasized in Estonia and continue to be strong in present day Tartu University. Tartu University was listed by Reuters Web of Science among the top 1% in the fields of molecular biology and genetics.