Leading figures at the University of Oslo over the last 200 years

For 200 years, the University of Oslo has trained and forged ties with very many people who have had a major historical impact on developments in Norway. Their legacy permeates modern Norwegian society.

Ill.: Hanne Utigard, UiO

Wergeland and Welhaven, pioneering researcher and explorer Nansen, Ragnar Frisch, who devised the first plans for national accounts in Norway, and scientist Kristian Birkeland are but the most famous. Several Norwegian prime ministers studied at the University of Oslo.

The University has been pivotal in a number of political battles, not least the resistance during the Second World War and the women's liberation movement.
Here we will present a small selection of the numerous individuals who have studied or been employed at the University and who have helped shape Norwegian society.

The University helps build a nation

The building up of the Norwegian state and the very nation-building that took place in the years immediately after the establishment of the University in 1811 were largely driven by groups associated with the Royal Frederik University, as the University of Oslo was originally called. It is no coincidence that the University came first, to be shortly followed by the Constitution.

In the nineteenth century, university men headed the public services and built up the school system and the infrastructure that an independent nation state needs. Roles were not clearly defined and delimited, and boundaries were unclear. There was extensive contact between the University, the political elite and the civil service. Ole Jacob Broch (1818–1889) was a "professor politician": he was both a member of the Storting (parliament) and a cabinet minister. At this time, it was not uncommon for university professors to be involved in politics alongside their academic work. A professor of mathematics, Broch was, along with Anton Martin Schweigaard, the professor who did the most work for the public sector.

The new university was a key institution that helped to ensure Norway political and cultural independence under the union with Sweden, as Norwegians feared they would be dominated by Sweden at every turn.

University people attempted to resolve many of the practical tasks that were necessary to develop the infrastructure required by a modern society.

Many of the University's staff and graduates also dominated cultural life in Norway: from the poet Johan Sebastian Welhaven (1807–1873), who was also a philosophy professor, to professor of history P. A. Munch (1810–1863), who did much to shape the way history was presented in Norway at the time. Henrik Wergeland (1808–1845), who had studied theology with Welhaven, is generally regarded as Norway's all-time greatest poet. An active man, Wergeland also did pioneering work in several areas of society in the fledgling Norway after 1814. He was fundamental in ensuring that the new state was a cultural nation through his poetry and all-round social involvement.

Boom in research

Developments in society meant more specialised knowledge was required – the ability to make good moral and legal judgements no longer sufficed. The University began to provide this knowledge through increased specialisation. Around the turn of the century, the modern research-intensive University that we know today started to take shape.
Physics professor Kristian Birkeland (1867–1917) is particularly known for his research on the aurora borealis. However, he also conducted research with potential for industrial application. Together with Sam Eyde, Birkeland developed a method of fixing nitrogen, in order to produce mineral fertiliser, giving rise to the commercial company Norsk Hydro in 1905.

Nowadays, Fridtjof Nansen (1861–1930) is primarily remembered for his daring polar expeditions and his humanitarian work after the First World War. However, Nansen was also a scientist. He was a pioneering naturalist and – by virtue of his fame and larger-than-life personality – one of Norway's most important figureheads before, during and after the dissolution of the union with Sweden in 1905. Nansen was a legendary national hero in his own era and has gone down in history as one of Norway's great nation-builders.

Experts at the service of society

After Norway's liberation from the union with Sweden in 1905, the University played an important role, educating scientifically trained men and women to perform expert tasks in a society that was increasingly focusing on ensuring all its citizens a good life in security and dignity. Education, health services and public administration were among the areas that turned to the University for knowledge, advice and staff. The University remained Norway’s only institution of higher education until 1946.
Carl Schiøtz (1877–1938) has done more than any other Norwegian doctor to turn the spotlight on children's health and develop good hygiene in schools, ensuring his place in the history of public health in Norway.

He produced a great deal of scientific and popular literature on hygiene and nutrition and introduced school breakfasts (the "Oslo breakfast").
In 1914, Schiøtz moved to Kristiania as a reserve doctor on the National Hospital's medical ward, and it was here that he began his life's work to improve children's health. His doctorate in medicine was a study of 10,000 Norwegian school children, with a focus on growth. From 1918, he served in a newly created position as health inspector in Kristiania, where tuberculosis and vitamin deficiency diseases were still rife, especially in the poorer eastern neighbourhoods.

Economist Ragnar Frisch (1895–1973) developed methods for setting up national accounts, which formed the basis of Norway's first national budget after 1945. He established a number of institutions for economic and statistical research, in Norway and abroad, and in 1969 he was awarded the first Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences.

Physicist and meteorologist Vilhelm Bjerknes (1862–1951) is the man behind modern weather forecasting in Norway. His methods were ground-breaking and were in great demand outside Norway too.

Professor of law Johannes Andenæs (1912–2003) was a dominant figure in law circles in Norway throughout the post-war period. Best known for his work in the areas of criminal law and criminal procedure, he has had a profound influence on constitutional law in Norway. His seminal book The Constitution of Norway, partially written on a roll of toilet paper while he was incarcerated in Grini concentration camp during the Second World War, has remained on the law curriculum until quite recently.

His book General criminal law, which was first published in 1956, is still required reading for law students. Andenæs played a central role in all the legislation on criminal law and criminal procedure in the post-war era.

Andenæs' social involvement stretched far beyond issues related to the law. He participated actively in public debate and concluded his authorship with the book Punishment as a problem in 1994 in which he reflects on the fundamental aspects of crime and punishment. This book includes a critical discussion of Norway's alcohol and drugs legislation and his own role in this. It caused quite a stir when he wrote that Norwegian drug policy "may well be the worst investment in punishment this century".

It is probably this combination of his great professional and academic importance and integrity and his ability for critical self-reflection that has made him a leading figure in Norwegian law.

Promoting a culture of objectivity in the public debate

Arne Dekke Eide Næss (1912–2009) is generally considered one of Norway's most important philosophers. The founder of deep ecology, he was a pioneer and activist in the Norwegian environmentalist movement, as well as a renowned mountaineer, leading the first ascent of Tirich Mir in 1950.

Næss was actively involved in the peace movement, and in 1948-49 he headed the UNESCO research project on democracy and the East–West conflict. Through his work as professor of philosophy (1939–1969), he contributed to the development of philosophy as a subject in general and the Norwegian university entrance examination Examen Philosophicum in particular.

His ideas have influenced several generations of Norwegian students through his textbooks on logic, argumentation theory, the philosophy of science and the history of philosophy. As the "father" of the Examen Philosophicum that all Norwegian students had to take as part of their university education, he promoted a culture of cultivation and objectivity that has had an immeasurable impact on political debate and social developments in general.

Contributed to the ethics debate in Norway

Jacob Jervell (1925– ) was a priest and professor of theology at the University of Oslo from 1960 until 1988. An object of some controversy in the church, and beloved by many as a teacher and preacher, he has been a prominent figure in Norwegian public debate. Jervell was the most high-profile and influential theologian in Norway and in the Norwegian Church throughout the second half of the 20th century.

Through his countless public contributions, he promoted an open and charity-oriented interpretation of Christianity. Jervell was also one of the most vociferous supporters of the right of women to be ordained among the theology professors. He has made a significant contribution to the Norwegian ethics debate.

The first women

Ida Cecilie Thoresen Krog (1858–1911) was the first female student at the University of Oslo. At Cecilie Thoresen's time, the university qualifying examination (Examen Artium) had to be taken at the universities, and women were not admitted. In 1880, she applied to the Ministry of Education and Church Affairs for permission for herself and other women to sit this exam, but her application was firmly denied. After much ado and with the assistance of Storting representative Hagbard E. Berner, an Act amendment on the right of women to sit the university matriculation and entrance exams was finally adopted in 1882. That same year Cecilie Thoresen was the first woman in Norway to sit the Examen

Artium and was enrolled at the University of Kristiania.

During the 1900s, a number of women excelled in academia and society at large.

Kristine Bonnevie (1872–1948) became Norway's first female professor in 1912, the year before women were granted the vote in Norway. Kristine Bonnevie clearly did much to pave the way for women in academia. In 1911, she became the first female member of the Norwegian Academy of Science. The Constitution had to be changed before she could be nominated for a professorship in 1912, and later she founded the Norwegian association for women in higher education (NKAL).

Bonnevie's story is that of an individual who dedicated her entire life to research and dissemination, as well as being highly committed to improving the social conditions at the university and in society at large. During the war, she organised food supplies for academics and other outlawed groups. Bonnevie shared her knowledge with the general public through lectures on the radio and in public academies across large parts of the country. Bonnevie's career testifies to an incredible strength, will and scientific acumen.

In 1921 Hanna Resvoll-Holmsen (1873–1943) became Norway's first female senior lecturer in plant geography. She participated in Prince Albert of Monaco's field studies in Svalbard, and later published the first book on the flora of Svalbard. Hanna Resvoll-Holmsen made an outstanding contribution to nature conservation in Norway, doing much to ensure that Gjende and Sjodalen, and parts of Svalbard were protected. She is therefore widely regarded as Norway's first conservationist. Hanna Resvoll-Holmsen was particularly interested in mountain forest and was an active campaigner against the native birch trees being replaced by spruce. In his book on Resvoll-Holmsen, Bredo Berntsen writes that "she excelled in all she did, although she was often seen as controversial by her colleagues" – a fate that commonly befalls women who tread new paths in society and academia.

Probably no other single person has had a greater individual influence on views on child rearing in Norway than child psychologist Åse Gruda Skard (1905–1985). She was an ardent advocate of children's rights. When she started studying psychology, she was one of only two full-time students on the course. Through her countless lectures, over two thousand articles, and twenty-four books, she had a profound impact on public opinion in Norway after the Second World War.

Her message to adults was twofold: always try to see the world from the child's point of view, and raise your children to have a democratic spirit by encouraging them to be independent, to participate and to develop themselves. Several of her books became instant modern classics and were widely read. Her work to promote children's rights led to the creation of a national ombudsman for children

The University during the Second World War

The University was very active in the resistance against the German occupation regime. The University was regarded as an ideological opponent and was unyielding in relation to the policy the NS wanted to impose on the institution. Several attempts by the occupying forces to "Nazify" the University culminated in 1943 with the mass arrest of students and staff, and the University was closed for teaching.

The rector and language historian Didrik Arup Seip (1884–1963) was one of the people who demonstrated their opposition to the Nazification of the university most clearly. As rector of the University of Oslo and a member of the Administrative Council, the temporary civil government of Norway in the early months of the German occupation of Norway, Arup Seip was unwavering in his opposition to Nazism.

Rector Arup Seip's resistance led to his being removed from his post in 1941, and he was arrested along with three other professors. He was replaced by Docent Adolf Hoel, who was more sympathetic to Nazism. Norway's first professor of psychology, Harald Schjelderup (1895–1974), then set up the undercover Action Committee at the University of Oslo.

This was a secret group that worked against the Nazification of the university. The situation came to a head in autumn 1943, and the Gestapo and German soldiers attacked on 20 November. The University was closed for the rest of the war, and at least 1,200 students were arrested.

Students Øystein Strømnes and Anne-Sophie Østvedt were chairman and deputy chair respectively of the intelligence organisation XU. The British considered XU under Strømnes' leadership to be the best intelligence organisation in occupied Europe. They were recruited from student circles, but used their connections, expertise and student status to participate in contexts that stretched far beyond the University.

The centre of the women's liberation movement

In no previous era has a single decade led to such major changes at the University as the 1960s. In terms of growth, it was and remains unparalleled. The number of students tripled from 1960 to 1970.

Revolutionary political views were rife at the University from 1968. Academics were expected to express their solidarity with the underprivileged.
The most fundamental change in the student population, however, was the increasing proportion of women.

Through the 1970s, the number of female students increased steadily until they were in the majority. At the same time the University became an important centre of the organised women's liberation movement.

Gro Harlem Brundtland (1939– ) graduated in medicine from the University in 1963 and would later become Norway's first female prime minister. She has been a leading pioneer and tireless advocate for strengthening women's rights and political influence in Norway.

"Internationalisation is having a rapidly increasing impact on us all.
For universities, this has been a matter of course for centuries. [...] That is why it is so important that we have had a university in the capital of Norway for 200 years at least. It has had an enormous impact on the development of Norwegian society." Read Gro Harlem Brundtland's thoughts in connection with the University of Oslo's bicentennial

Gro Harlem Brundtland was prime minster for ten years from 1986 to 1996, bar a short break. From the mid-1970s, she sought to give politics a more environmental and feminist profile. Gro Harlem Brundtland's "women's government" caused a worldwide sensation when it was presented on 9 May 1986. Eight of the 18 cabinet members were women.

Brundtland has been more involved in international work than any other Norwegian prime minister. As head of the UN's World Commission of Environment and Development, she made sure that environmental policy was high on the agenda in many countries, and at major international conferences she made a conscious effort to elevate the status of women globally.

The University of Oslo in the 21st century

A modern university is by nature international. The University of Oslo has set itself the goal of asserting itself internationally in the coming years. The University's main aim is "to develop UiO into a first-class international university, where the interaction among research, education, dissemination and innovation shall be at its best".

"[...] I am still very grateful for the quality of the economists at the University of Oslo." Read Kåre Willoch's thoughts in connection with the University of Oslo's bicentennial

ICT and computer science is one field where the University is at the forefront internationally. Ole-Johan Dahl (1931–2002) was professor of computer science at the University of Oslo and together with Kristen Nygaard (1926-2002) one of the first people to work on data processing theory at university level. He is especially known for the development of the programming language Simula or object-oriented programming.

The ideas that underlie Simula have formed the basis for many modern programming languages. In the 2000s, object-oriented programming has come to dominate computer science around the world.

Interdisciplinary scientific research is becoming increasingly important. The University of Oslo has defined biotechnology and the field now known as the life sciences as key focus areas that will provide opportunities to develop new industries and new medicines, better food safety, new forms of energy and better environmental protection.

Of the eight centres of excellence at the University of Oslo, four focus on fields that come under the collective term "life sciences". 

By Cecilie Grønntun
Published Sep. 1, 2011 5:25 PM - Last modified Sep. 22, 2011 8:35 AM