The history of Uppsala University – a brief summary

Uppsala University, founded in 1477, was the first university in Scandinavia.

Beginning, crisis and restoration (1477–1600)

The initiative in this matter came from the Primate of the Catholic Church of Sweden, Archbishop Jakob Ulvsson of Uppsala. The new University was small, having at most 50 students and a handful of professors. The University fell into decay in the first decade of the 16th century due to the political unrest of the period.

In the 1520s and 1530s Sweden’s new monarch, Gustav I Vasa, carried out the Lutheran Reformation, which meant that the University, a daughter of the Church, lost its economic and ideological basis and for a long time remained only an idea without real content.

However, this situation changed at the end of the 16th century. At this time, the Protestant clergy had gained a firm hold over religious teaching and felt the need for studies, in order to confront the Catholic counter-reformation, and a decision was made at the Church council in Uppsala (Uppsala möte) in 1593 to restore the privileges of the University. The new charter was signed on 15 March, 1595.

Old illustration of Östra Ågatan in Uppsala during the 300:th anniversary of the Church council in Uppsala. People are walking on the street, flags are waving from the church towers and buildings.
View from Östra ågatan over Dombron towards Domtrappan and Uppsala Cathedral at the 300th anniversary of the Church council in Uppsala (Uppsala möte). Engraving by Ferdinand Boberg, 1893.

The 17th century

During the reign of Gustav II Adolf (1611–1632), Sweden was consolidated as a leading military power in Northern Europe and also as an advanced bureaucratic State. The kingdom needed competent government officials. Together with his main advisor, Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna, Gustav II Adolf provided benefits to the University, both economically and administratively. In particular he made a donation of more than 300 farms to the University, and this property is still owned and administered by the University. Professors from other countries were summoned, and the number of students increased. During this time, the system of student nations was imported from the medieval universities on the continent. It meant that students from the same region joined together in order to help each other and to have fun. This system is still in existence.

During the 1660s and 1670s the University was dominated by Olof Rudbeck. Originally trained as a physician, Rudbeck was an extremely versatile scholar and was a person who enjoyed exercising power. Among his achievements is the remarkable anatomical theatre which he had erected on top of the Gustavianum, the then new university building. Today this edifice houses a museum of the history of science and ideas - Museum Gustavianum.

The ‘Age of Freedom’, the 18th century

Carl Linnaeus, the botanist who became a professor at Uppsala in 1741 after studying here and in Holland, is the name that dominates the 18th century. Because of him, many students from all over Europe came to Uppsala. He sent his own students on research expeditions to various parts of the world, e.g. Japan, South Africa, and Australia. Thus, by the middle of the 18th century, there was a flowering of the natural sciences at Uppsala. Also deserving mention in addition to Linnaeus are such scholars as Anders Berch, the economist, Anders Celsius, the astronomer who constructed the most widely used thermometer, and Torbern Bergman, the chemist.

At the end of the century, the Swedish king Gustav III (1771–1792) took a lively interest in the University. One of the ways he demonstrated this interest was by donating to the University the extensive garden which belonged to the Royal Castle of Uppsala. Since then this garden has been known as the Botanical Garden. A building with an impressive colonnade, which still adorns the garden, was erected there in memory of Linnaeus and in honour of Gustav III.

The period of Uppsala romanticism (1800–1877)

The 19th century has been called the students’ century in Uppsala. Previously, the students had been a rather anonymous group, but under the influence of the teachings of the French Revolution and with the growing importance, independence and self-esteem of the educated upper middle class, students gradually became more and more involved in political issues and also counted more and more in public opinion. Minor disturbances could take place. In the middle of the 19th century, nationalistic Scandinavian tendencies had an especially strong influence on students, and these were felt in Uppsala as well as other university towns.

If the 18th century was the century of the natural sciences at the University, the 19th century was the era of historians, literary scholars, and writers. A statue has been erected in front of the main university building in honour of the foremost of these scholars, the historian Erik Gustaf Geijer. Many changes were made in the middle of the century which reformed the organisation of the university and brought the examination system up-to-date.

The art collection at Uppsala University is one of the largest in Sweden. It has been created through donations, mainly during the 19th century. Many portraits can be seen on the walls of the University Main Building. An art collection, used for teaching purposes, is exhibited in newly-restored premises in Uppsala Castle.

The transition to the new era (1877–1945)

Uppsala University celebrated its 400th anniversary with pomp and circumstance in 1877. As a present from the Swedish state on this occasion, the University received a new university building – the University Main Building – which is still in use. The building was officially opened ten years later in 1887.

Women had been allowed to study at the University starting in the 1870s. However, it was a long and arduous struggle for the women who studied here to achieve equal recognition in their studies and academic careers. The first woman in Scandinavia to receive a PhD was the historian Ellen Fries, who received her degree in Uppsala in 1883.

The University boasted many prominent scholars during this period. Some of them became Nobel laureates. Alfred Nobel, himself, received an honorary doctorate from the University in 1893.

Immediately preceding World War I (1914–1918), student opinion was strongly divided into a conservative and a radical wing. During World War II, student opinion was more unified however, and most of the young people reacted with abhorrence to the Nazi philosophy of violence.

Expansion in the latter half of the 20th century

This period is characterised by sweeping educational reforms and expansion of the number of students. All post-secondary education has been concentrated in the universities and university colleges. For Uppsala University this means that all teacher-training programmes and shorter nursing programmes are now part of the University.

The number of students, which had been about 5,000 in the 1950s, increased dramatically in the 1960s, reaching some 20,000 students before stabilising at a somewhat lower level. In the 1990s new expansion has taken place, with more than 30,000 students involved in undergraduate education. All education is now subject to selective admissions. In postgraduate education there are greater demands for better through-put efficiency.

There has been a democratisation of modes of operating at the University. Students participate in decision-making bodies. Quality issues are in focus. In recent years IT support has transformed ways of working, and a flexible teaching structure – flexible learning – applies not only to distance education but to an increasing extent to regular instruction as well. Apace with increasing job-oriented education, further and continuing education have become firmly established as vital areas.

The ever greater social orientation at the University has also affected research activities during the last couple of decades. At the same time, external financing has gained ground. Intensive contacts with the surrounding world, both nationally and internationally, broaden the University’s role in the international academic community.

Vigorous growth has entailed a need for new premises for education and research. Whereas in the 1950s, the University’s activities were concentrated in the University Main Building and its environs, centrally located by the Cathedral, today the University is spread out over large areas, with a number of campuses of inter- and multi-disciplinary character.

This expansion has been paralleled by extensive decentralisation and reorganisation, making Uppsala a modern university on the interface between scholarly tradition and cultural heritage and internationally anchored research and innovation.

Last modified: 2022-07-08