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Upward Mobility: Professors

The Wegelius family had their heyday in the fourth and fifth generations, but they did not see any notable upward mobility. For six generations, the Wegelius family maintained their respectable middle-ranking status in the clerical hierarchy. Most family members were vicars, but many clerical careers did not progress beyond the position of chaplain or even vicar’s assistant. Jakob, the protagonist of the history book on the Wegelius, was the most successful priest in the family: he was a doctor of medicine and theology and also held the title of dean. Nonetheless, he stayed in his Bothnian parish as vicar. There are also a few other doctors of theology in the Wegelius family tree, but they too made their careers as parish priests. Some Wegelius priests were elected to the Diet as representatives of the clergy (Wegelius 2001, 100, 117).

The standing of clerics in the ecclesiastical hierarchy was strictly determined by office, a system that bestowed the highest status on archbishop, bishops and professors (Waris 1940, 214). A similar office-based hierarchy prevailed in state governance, but in both cases the status was also performed in various ways. For instance, the archbishop’s official residence in Turku is a prominent two-storey stone building in neo-classical style, a popular design expression for government buildings in the late nineteenth century when the archbishop’s residence was built. It is more gorgeous than the wooden mansions of vicars, not to mention the houses of chaplains, which hardly differed from farmhouses (Suolahti 1912). But the archbishops’ residence certainly does not compare with the aristocracy’s most palatial residences. This clearly hints at the existence of a status difference between the nobility and the clergy, in favour of the former.

No Wegelius became a bishop or a professor. Professorship would have suited them well, for as late as the nineteenth century 26 per cent of all professors were priests’ sons. Professorship, the other top rung of the clerical social ladder, only became possible in 1640 when the first Finnish university was founded in Turku. At the time, though, the distinction between professors and clergymen was less than clear-cut. It was common for professors to practise priesthood, and sometimes they even decided to give up their professorship in favour of vicarship, and large numbers furthermore moved from other faculties to the Faculty of Theology. In the eighteenth century, before the age of disciplinary specialization, this was still quite feasible and normal, as the Professor Roll verifies (Ellonen 2007). All these facts go to attest the assumption that ecclesiastical offices had retained their high prestige. Let the Swiss mathematician Jacob Bernoulli’s (1654-1707) career plans illustrate the hierarchical order of disciplines and vocations at the time (Tent 2009, 8-9). His entry into Basel University was much discussed in his family. Jacob’s father was in favour of allowing his son to pursue an intellectual life instead of going into the family’s long-standing business. This was the first choice that Jacob and his father made, indicating that they placed higher value on an academic career than on entering business. Jacob started out studying philosophy, but upon completion of his Master’s degree followed his father’s direction and turned to theology. His father wanted Jacob to pursue a career in the church. When Jacob showed a greater interest in mathematics than theology, his father took furious objection: he could not understand what possible use one could have for mathematics. In spite of his father’s opposition, Jacob Bernoulli kept his head.

Jacob Bernoulli may have valued a career in science more than any other, but professors did not feature on the highest rungs of the official ranking lists of occupations. According to the 1714 official ranking roll for Sweden, professor was equal to captain in rank: both were ranked 36th on the list of 40 occupational ranks (Carlsson 1950, 64; the list is drawn from According to another statute decreed by the Russian emperor in 1880 and therefore applicable to Finland, the ranking of professor had risen from almost the bottom to midway the list, that is, to 7th out of 14 ranks in total. Professor was now equal in standing to lieutenant colonel, while captain was ranked ninth. On the ranking list of circa 1300 occupations compiled in the 1960s on the basis of status grading, professor was among the top nine occupations, in fact third after president of the Supreme Court and prime minister (Rauhala 1966, 212)—quite a phenomenal social rise in the space of 250 years. This conclusion seems justified, although the ranking lists are not directly comparable. The first two are official ranking lists, whereas the third list is based on a survey that charted the grading of occupations. More recently, various agencies have drawn up their own ranking lists of universities and scholars in different fields (e.g., biographyonline. net). Although unofficial, they clearly reveal how status distinctions are now made in the academic world: office-based rankings are increasingly giving way to individual rankings after the fashion of sports and song contests, for example.

Rather than recording the family backgrounds of professors in meticulous detail here, I will concentrate on the bigger picture. For that purpose, I have distinguished four main trends in professors’ family backgrounds in the seventeenth century up to 2007. One conspicuous long-term trend stemmed from the close connection of professors with the clergy from the seventeenth century onwards, which destined clergymen’s sons to pursue a university career. According to calculations made on the basis of the Professor Roll (Ellonen 2007)[1], half of all Finnish professors in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were clergymen’s sons. This was also true of the most famous Swedish scholars at the time: they were priests’ sons (Carlsson 1950, 68). In England, some clergymen who advanced rapidly to the position of cardinal were nominated by the monarch to the highest state offices. These included men of humble origin such as Thomas Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell in the sixteenth century (Schofield 2011). In France too, cardinals could forge an outstanding career in state governance: examples include Cardinal de Richelieu and Cardinal Mazarin in the seventeenth century, but they were of noble origin. In both Protestant and Catholic monarchies, then, ecclesiastical office provided a good springboard for upward mobility, whether into state governance or professorship. However, such opportunities for social rise diminished in the course of time. In Finland, the hegemony of clergymen’s sons in the professoriate began to wane in the nineteenth century, when their proportion fell to 26 per cent. This trend has continued ever since: in 1900—49 clergymen’s sons accounted for 11 per cent, in 1950-69 for 6 per cent, in 1970-89 for 4 per cent and finally in 1990-2007 for no more than 2 per cent. Priesthood was thus no longer a stepping stone to the professoriate.

The second conspicuous trend evolved in the depths of the large lower- ranking social segments. Initially the proportion of landholders’ sons was quite high, around 12 per cent in the seventeenth century, but it then dropped to 6 per cent in the eighteenth century and to a mere 4 per cent in the nineteenth century. At that historical juncture landholders— or better to say smallholders—were on a par with craftsmen, tenants, crofters and farmhands, not only in terms of their minimal numbers among professors’ fathers, but also in terms of their conversion into a large lower-ranking rural social segment, as discussed earlier in this book. During the long course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, only two craftsmen’s sons and one crofter’s son were appointed professors in Finland. The nineteenth century saw no significant improvement: just one crofter’s, one worker’s and three craftsmen’s sons were appointed professors. The most famous of them was Elias Lonnrot (1802-84), a tailor’s son who was a professor of medicine but whose main life achievement was the writing of Kalevala, the national epic of Finland, which he compiled from national folk tales in the 1830s. Thus, it was not the lack of intellectual capacity that prevented social rise from the lowest ranks to professorship but, rather, the ranking system itself that rigorously separated the lowest strata from the upper echelons, making the wide gap between them virtually insurmountable.

By the first half of the twentieth century, however, the situation changed dramatically in both social segments mentioned above. Farmers’ sons made their entry into the professoriate first. In 1900-49, 8 per cent of professors were farmers’ sons. Their proportion rose to 13 per cent in 1950-69 and further to 17 per cent in 1970-89 and 16 per cent in 1990-2007. Workers’ sons experienced a similar social rise, and their upgrading was even more dramatic. In the first half of the twentieth century a mere 4 per cent of professors were workers’ sons, but that figure started to increase, edging up to 9 per cent in 1950-69. Their proportion increased further to 14 per cent between 1970 and 1989, the same (15 per cent) as in 1990-2007. The university system expanded from the 1960s onwards more rapidly and more extensively than ever before (Savage 2015, 222-5), but this was hardly the only reason for the sharp rise in the number of professors whose fathers were workers and farmers, because those professors who took up their professorships in the 1960s had completed their doctoral degree in an earlier decade. Rather, I would be inclined to say that both changes—the expansion of the university institution and the increasing number of workers’ sons entering the professoriate—reflected the rise of professionalism to its height in the 1960s and 1970s. This also generated increased confidence in the ability of academic degrees to guarantee a higher status in society. At the same time, this was behind the third conspicuous tendency in the family backgrounds of professors, that is, the increasing prominence of academic professionals in the twentieth century. The proportion of professors who were higher- grade professionals’ (vicars excluded) children increased from 6 per cent in the nineteenth century to 18 per cent in the first half of the twentieth century. It rose further to 28 per cent in 1950-69, but then declined in 1970-89 to 24 per cent, remaining unchanged in 1990-2007. It is worth mentioning one further trend here: while 57 per cent of professors were children of vicars, professors, academic professionals and higher civil servants in the nineteenth century, their proportion declined in the twentieth century: to 48 per cent in 1900-49, to 42 per cent in 1950-69 and to 35 per cent in 1970-2007.

To extend this analysis to other parts of Europe and the United States, I have selected a sample of scholars from different fields based on lists of the world’s top ten scientists. Consisting of psychologists, philosophers, economists, sociologists, anthropologists and Nobel Laureates in physiology or medicine, this sample is not consistent with my data for ordinary Finnish professors, but, nonetheless, sheds enough light on the family backgrounds of top-level scholars. Looking first at those who were born in the nineteenth century, some 30 per cent of these highly awarded scholars’ fathers were professors, that is, distinctly more than in the case of ordinary Finnish professors, 10 per cent in the nineteenth century. Otherwise the two groups of professors have similar profiles: their fathers were businessmen, academic professionals or priests, but very rarely lower-level employees, craftsmen or farmers. This suggests that, despite some differences, elevation to professorship largely followed the same paths in nineteenth-century Europe and United States. Moreover, among professors born in the twentieth century the changes moved in the same direction as in Finland, although in volume terms they were less pronounced. The proportion of professors’ children declined to 15 per cent and that of businessmen’s children from 20 per cent to 14 per cent, whereas the number of learned professionals’ children was on the rise. As in Finland, priests’ children had virtually disappeared from this scene. Furthermore, the proportion of children of lower-ranking fathers, including farmers, rose to 25 per cent.

It is evident from these trends that the professoriate has transformed profoundly since the 1960s. Family background no longer categorically determines who are qualified for a professorship. Klinge (1990, 419-58) suggests that this change was reflected in professors’ housing conditions in the course of the twentieth century. Professors used to live in downtown Helsinki, near the university, but since the 1950s they increasingly began to move out to the suburbs. Reading in between the lines it is clear that Klinge values the old inner city more than the new suburbs, but the plain truth is that in both areas professors mainly lived and live in multistorey blocks of flats, intermingling with other residents in such a way that it is impossible to recognize status differences. In this respect, professors clearly differ from the genuine dynasties examined so far.

  • [1] Calculations are based on the total sample of professors for 1640-1917 and on a 25 per centsample for professors nominated after 1917 (Ellonen 2007).
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