D – Transregional connections and entangled regions

Medical knowledge in/from the North: Global connections and local solutions in Sweden and Finland, 18th and 19th centuries

Event Details

  • Date

    Saturday, 27 June - 11:00 – 13:00

  • Venue
  • Theme
    D – Transregional connections and entangled regions
  • Kalle Kananoja (University of Helsinki)
  • Petteri Impola (University of Jyväskylä)
  • Iris Borowy (Shanghai University)
  • Ritva Kylli (University of Oulu)
  • Katariina Lehto (University of Tampere)
  • Kalle Kananoja (University of Helsinki)


  • Katariina Lehto
    Shared values, circulating ideas and a physician facing local demands in the early eighteenth-century Sweden

    Shared values, circulating ideas and a physician facing local demands in the early eighteenth-century Sweden

    During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, some fundamental changes in natural philosophy started to appear in the European universities. The Aristotelian tradition, which regarded substance as a combination of two principles, matter and form, lived long in the minds of academic natural philosophers, but during this time, the dominance of this view was increasingly challenged. In my dissertation, I will examine how the changes in natural philosophy affected the conceptions concerning medicinal substances. I will focus on Swedish physician Peter Elfving in order to approach this issue from the viewpoint of a practicing physician, who was well connected and seemingly well informed about the medicinal doctrines of his day, but nevertheless acted on a local basis, employing education he gathered from Sweden and abroad.
  • Ritva Kylli
    “Look at the grass in another way” – indigenous knowledge and plant-based medication in the Arctic

    “Look at the grass in another way” – indigenous knowledge and plant-based medication in the Arctic

    This paper focuses on the Arctic indigenous peoples and their knowledge of the plant-based medication. The lands of the Sámi, living in the northernmost Fennoscandia, were colonized since the eighteenth century partly by the means of scientific colonialism. Authorities were interested in knowing how indigenous peoples used plants as food and as medical herbs also in other northern regions. Japanese scientists had shown interest in collecting the knowledge the Ainu held on plant-based medication. In a book Ainu Economic Plants, published in 1893, was stated, that “There is no field in the domain of economic botany more interesting and full of promise than that among a barbarous race which has wholly subsisted for untold ages on the products of the forest and the sea.” Botany was not established as a field of study at the University of Helsinki prior to the 1850s. Until that time, the study of the plants of Finland was in the hands of amateur enthusiasts. When they were travelling in Lapland, they familiarized themselves with ”medical power and benefits” of plants. At the same time as many European nations were trying to maximize the utilization of natural resources in the northern areas, the relationship between the Sámi people and their environment was characterized by an attempt to preserve nature. According to an old Sámi song, Sámi of Finnish Lapland people spoke to the settlers – who they called thieves – arriving in their lands in the following way: ”Look at the plants and heed my advice, see the marks on the trees, also look at the grass in another way.” The ways the Sámi have valued the environment have been recorded in travelogues and other forms of writing over the course of centuries, and these texts serve as sources for modern historians.
  • Kalle Kananoja
    Literacy and Healers’ Strategies in Finnish Folk Medicine 1850–1950

    Literacy and Healers’ Strategies in Finnish Folk Medicine 1850–1950

    Folk medicine inevitably declined and was pushed into the margins with the spread of literacy and the proliferation of modern, scientific biomedicine. However, it still remained the primary way to health in peripheral regions of Europe, such as rural Finland, well into the twentieth century. The spread of literacy affected folk medicine in ways that shaped many folk practitioners’ healing strategies. The translation of health literature into Finnish made aspiring healers increasingly aware of international medical development. The historical data analysed here – court records, reports by medical doctors and journalists, oral histories recorded by folklorists or memories written by lay informants – suggest that literate healers aiming to modernise their practice – for example, by prescribing pharmacy medicines – were far from a rare phenomenon in the Finnish countryside by the early twentieth century. Finnish folk medicine became increasingly a hybrid medical practice combining herbalism and methods learned from popular health guides and scientific literature. By discarding superstitious practices and employing hybrid methods, folk healers sought to enter modernity as peasant intellectuals.


What constitutes a minority practice in the global history of health and medicine? In the post-WWII world, biomedicine gained a hegemonic position on a global scale, leading to the exclusion of many previous medical traditions and healing modalities. In the longue durée history of global healing, this was quite exceptional. While various medical systems have at times held strong positions locally and regionally, no medical system had, at least ideologically, permeated the world so successfully. However, prior to the twentieth-century, ‘western’ medicine was merely one alternative among medical systems, often a minority practice resorted to by the wealthy elites. In local societies, indigenous medical knowledge provided the primary way to health. In the early modern period, cross-cultural interaction and expanding intellectual networks widened the limits of the possible. The papers in this panel explore the formation of medical knowledge in Sweden and Finland in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, focusing on narratives of inclusion and exclusion. They also highlight transnational and cross-cultural connections in the Nordic history of medicine, demonstrating how medical cultures and practitioners underwent major changes in the increasingly interconnected world. When we look back into the past worlds of healing, our view tends to be framed, or dominated, by an apparatus of ‘biomedicine triumphant’, either as a narrative of progress to be celebrated or as a structure of power/knowledge to be criticised and deconstructed. These perspectives, as valuable as they are, tend to obscure the longer-term, more every-day, and less teleological perspectives within the histories of healing. This panel aims to bring such perspectives, of healers and patients, of people and institutions of power, into new focus and to consider the methodological possibilities of expanding historical inquiry.