The Remains of Dynasticity

The percentage of professors whose fathers were also professors gives us a first glimpse of the prevalence of dynasticity in the professoriate in terms of identical status equivalence. In seventeenth-century Finland their proportion was 7 per cent, rising to 11 per cent in the eighteenth century, and then remaining unchanged at the same level (10 per cent) in the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century, the proportion of professors’ children in the professoriate declined, first to 7 per cent in 1900-49 and then to 2 per cent between 1950 and 1969, after which the proportion rose to 4 per cent in 1970-89 and further to 6 per cent between 1990 and 2007. These figures for new professors do not promise much in terms of dynasticity, but inasmuch as there were professor dynasties they are worth closer examination. There is sufficient evidence to support the claim that the majority of dynasties of several professors were constituted in certain types of families. Much depended on the occupational status of the first professor’s father. Membership of the professoriate was most likely to pass down among professors whose fathers were well-to-do merchants or factory owners, clerics or academic professionals. Clearly, the creation of a professor dynasty needed an additional injection of inherited prestige.

A good example of this kind of advantage is provided by the Bonsdorffs, who beat the all-time Finnish record for the number of professors in one family. The forefather (Carpelan 1942), Peter Bonsdorff (1719-1803), was a cleric who was elevated to dean. He was also a doctor of theology, reflecting his inclination towards the sciences. This vicar married a professor’s daughter, which provided a good start for the building of a professor dynasty, especially as his wife’s brother was also a professor; another brother was a bishop. And indeed, three of Peter and his wife’s sons became professors. The eldest one, Gabriel (1762-1831), was ennobled in 1819 for his career as a university rector. Henceforth he and his descendants were von Bonsdorffs. His two professor brothers were not ennobled, but there were further professors in these two branches as well. We will here follow the ennobled branch, since ennoblement proved to be an additional asset in the creation of professor dynasties.

The professors in the family clustered around the second generation, the one with three professor brothers, but only one son was nominated as a professor in the third generation, though he remained unmarried. We have to move on to the fifth generation to find the next professor, and there is one further professor in the sixth generation; his daughter is also a professor. All in all then, there were several professors in the family, but they were spread out across different generations over the course of two centuries. In academia, the von Bonsdorffs are, nonetheless, recognized as a professor dynasty—although they could just as well be categorized as a dynasty of medical doctors, who by far outnumber professors in the family. There are also several judges and lecturers, in one word, academic professionals, as well as higher civil servants. One branch was elevated to barony in 1868.

In our next two professor dynasties the idea of heredity stems from the common perception that mathematical talent is hereditary. In the first of them, the Swiss Bernoulli family (Tent 2009), eight family members in three generations became top-level mathematicians in the space of one century; most of them rose to prominence in the eighteenth century. Before that, the Bernoullis had run their family business in several generations, until Jacob (1654-1705) turned his back on the business and went to study at Basel University. Jacob was the one who left theology for mathematics against his father’s wish. Jacob’s brother, Johann (1667-1748), also became a professor of mathematics. In the next generation, Johann’s three sons, Nicolaus II (1695-1726), Daniel (1700-82) and Johann II (1710-90), displayed their mathematical genius while still in their childhood, a typical demonstration of the heredity of mathematical endowments. All of them became professors and like their father were awarded prizes by the Academy of Sciences. Their cousin Nicolaus I (1687-1759) added a further element of dynasticity to this family. In the third generation only two descendants, the said Johann Il’s two sons, Johann III (1744-1807) and Jacob II (1759-89), created academic careers comparable to those of their father and three uncles. When 3 other but less famous Bernoulli mathematicians are added to the family ensemble, their total number comes to 11.

The other case of mathematician dynasties is from Finland, the Neovius family who changed their surname to Nevanlinna in 1906 (Nevanlinna 1994). Unlike the Bernoullis, the Nevanlinnas descended from a vicar, a typical avenue to the professoriate in Finland. This vicar’s son, Edvard Engelbert Neovius (1823-88), was a general major and a teacher of mathematics at the Cadet College. Two of his sons followed in his footsteps as officers, but the three other sons inherited their father’s enthusiasm for mathematics. The second eldest son was Lars Theodor, PhD, who had an outstanding career in state governance, but he is much better known for his elementary mathematics textbooks. The third son, Edvard Rudolf (1851-1917), became a professor of mathematics, the first in this family, as well as a senator. Next in the line of siblings was Alina (b. 1857), who is known as one of first female teachers of mathematics in Finland. She remained unmarried, a common destiny for higher-ranking employed women. The youngest son, Otto (1867-1927), was a senior lecturer of mathematics at the Normal Lyceum in Helsinki. In the second generation, then, the family was seized by enthusiasm for mathematics, but only one family member advanced to become a professor. The number of professors increased in the third and fourth generations. All of them came from Otto’s family, the man who taught mathematics at the Normal Lyceum. His eldest son, Fritiof (1894-1977), was a professor of mathematics, as was his son and grandson. His sister married a professor of medicine, and they produced one more professor of mathematics into the Nevanlinna family. The middle son, Rolf Nevanlinna (1895-1980), was the most famous professor of mathematics in this family, and its evident central figure. There are also some high-ranking civil servants in the family, including two senators.

In Finland, 14 per cent of all professors in the nineteenth century came from entrepreneurial families, most of which were well-to-do merchant or industrialist families. One such family were the Donners (Dahlberg and Mickwitz 2014), who started their businesses in the shipping trade and in tobacco manufacture in a small town on the western coast in the late eighteenth century. However, the Donners’ success ended in bankruptcy in the 1880s, compelling them to find other routes to success. The Donners were successfully immersed in the same flow of transition that drew many families into new fields, converting this particular family from an entrepreneur family into a ‘cultural family’, as the metamorphosis is termed in the family history of the Donners. At the core of the ‘cultural’ were academic pursuits in different fields, but more so in the humanities. The first in line was Otto Donner (1835-1909), a professor and a senator who was also considered the family’s central figure. His nephew, Severin Donner (1854-1938), who had lived in Otto’s family, was also a professor and, moreover, a university rector.

In the second generation, two of Otto Donner’s sons re-established business lines in the Donner family, showing that business was still running in the family blood. There were no professors in this generation, but those who did not go into business became academic professionals. One of them, Dr. Kai Reinhold (1888-1935), who was a docent and prominent researcher and explorer, married Margareta von Bonsdorff, a professor’s daughter. Kai’s sister, Birgitta married another professor from the von Bonsdorff family, Goran von Bonsdorff (b. 1918). They were thus relatives. Kai and Margaretas family produced two more professors, Kai Otto and Joakim, both born in the 1920s. In the fourth generation, Kai Otto’s son, Kristian Donner (b. 1952), was appointed a professor. There were other professors as well, some of whom were born into the daughters’ families, but many were doctors and university docents, and a growing number were academic professionals. The large number of professors and doctors in the family and marriages to professors or their daughters laid the foundation for their high esteem in the academic world, an image that carries over to the present day, especially as two men in younger generations showed eminence in the field of arts, one a film director and writer (Jorn Donner), the other a composer (Henrik Otto Donner). A very special case in the third generation was Patrick Donner who was elected to the House of Commons of Britain, where he maintained his seat for the appreciably long period from 1926 to 1955. He is said to have been a good friend of Winston Churchill, but his name is not mentioned in Churchill’s extensive biography (Lovell 2012).

Our final case is from Britain: Professor Charles Darwin (1809-82), who developed the famous theory of evolution (Browne 1996, 2002; Barlow 2005; Kuper 2009, 107-34) and who also appears on the Internet list of top ten scientists. Both his father and his grandfather were medical doctors. Charles Darwin was the first professor in the family, but many male family members in several generations were highly educated and intellectually oriented. Charles Darwin was without question the most famous and most influential person in the family, even though his son, George Darwin (1845-1912), as well as his son, Charles Galton Darwin, were professors. It is often the case that only one achieves excellence and fame, even in families with several professors, indicating that professors too are ranked, in their case according to excellence in the sciences. Moreover, as in many other professor families, the chain of professors broke down in the third or fourth generation, in Darwin’s family in the fourth generation. Professor Charles Galton’s son, Francis William Darwin (1932-2001), was not a professor, but occupied a lesser position: he taught zoology at the University of London.

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