Establishment of the Scandinavian Department

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"It gives me great pleasure to congratulate the Department of Scandinavian Languages and Literature at the University of Washington on the occasion of its 75th Anniversary. The scope of this department is of the greatest importance, not only for the many Americans of Scandinavian heritage, but also for the mutual understanding between peoples whose way of life is founded on the principles of humanism and democracy.

With the establishment, through the generous gift of the late Hans Christian Sonne, of the chair of Danish Studies, the teaching of Danish language and literature was greatly enhanced, and I send my best wishes to the present holder of this responsible post."

--75th Anniversary Message from
Her Majesty Queen Margrethe II of Denmark

"In the spring of 1908 three students of Swedish extraction, O. R. Karlstrom, R. C. Skone, and Andrew Anderson, attracted to one another by their common ancestry, drifted accidentally into a conversation, in the course of which one of them quite casually expressed a wish that a course in Swedish might be given at the University. Although originally devoid of any intention, this wish, as so often happens, became the father of the deed."

So recorded Edwin J. Vickner, longtime chairman of the Department of Scandinavian Languages and Literature at the University of Washington, in a history of the department published in 1942. It was perhaps an innocent and inauspicious beginning for what would become the largest program of its kind in the U.S., and one of the top such programs in the world. When the department celebrated its 75th anniversary in 1984, the heads of state of all of the Scandinavian countries, in addition to government leaders in the U.S., wrote letters of congratulation and appreciation to the department.

[Cover of 75th Anniversary Booklet]
  Cover of the 75th Anniversary Booklet of the UW Department of Scandinavian Languages and Literature

The establishment of the department in 1909 was the fruit of a grass roots movement that began with that chance conversation between three students. The students enlisted the aid of engineering professor Carl E. Magnusson, whose interest in Swedish culture was well-known, to formulate plans for bringing the issue to the attention of the University's Board of Regents. With encouragement from Magnusson, they founded a Scandinavian Club, and organized in conjunction with Andrew Chilberg, Swedish Consul and President of the Scandinavian-American Band in Seattle, a grand May festival which drew a large and enthusiastic crowd. The festival featured an address by Magnusson along with vocal and instrumental musical programs.

After the May festival, two petitions were circulated. One of them, submitted to UW president Thomas Franklin Kane, was signed by 25 students requesting instruction in the Scandinavian languages; another, submitted to the Board of Regents, contained hundreds of signatures from community members calling for the establishment of a department of Scandinavian Languages and Literature.

Vickner records that, according to Magnusson, "members of the Legislature as well as candidates running for legislative offices were approached through letters and in personal interviews, and their co-operation was solicited." That lobbying effort paid off, when in 1909, a bill was enacted into law which established the Scandinavian Department.

"Curiously enough, the program was tied to the establishment and maintenance of a program in military instruction at the University," notes Terje I. Leiren, current chair of the department, in a history he published in 1985. Leiren was knighted by the King of Norway in 1996 for his scholarship in Norwegian Studies, for his support of students in Norway and at the UW, and for his leadership and service to the Norwegian-American community in Washington State.

David Nyvall was appointed as the first professor of Scandinavian by the Board of Regents in 1910, joining the UW from North Park College, Chicago, where he had served as president. Nyvall developed a curriculum for the year 1910 that included courses in Swedish, Norwegian, History of Norwegian and Danish Literature, History of Swedish Literature, and Old Norse Grammar. He established from the beginning a tradition of treating the various Scandinavian nationalities equally. "The different Scandinavian nationalities, Danes, Icelanders, Norwegians, Swedes, and Finlanders, have always felt that it is their department," wrote Vickner.

In 1912, Vickner assumed the chair of the department. During his tenure, the department expanded its course offerings and enrollment, and it won regional and national recognition. Vickner pioneered the teaching of Scandinavian literature in English translation. This development originally was opposed by English and other foreign language departments, but eventually was adopted as standard practice throughout the U.S. Thus in 1913, the UW became the first to teach foreign language literature in English translation in the U.S.

Sverre Arestad, a former student who joined the department as a faculty member in 1938, developed a special interest in the history of Scandinavian immigrants in the Pacific Northwest. Arestad was instrumental in establishing a Scandinavian Historical Research Committee in 1943. "Although it survived only a few years," notes Leiren, "it inspired several articles and the collection and preservation of the records of Scandinavians in the Puget Sound region and serves as the model for current efforts in this direction."footnote 3

After his retirement in 1948, Vickner was succeeded by Walter Johnson, who became the foremost scholar of Swedish writer August Strindberg (see Walter Johnson: Scholar of Swedish Literature). Later, under Johnson's tenure, the Danish government chose the UW as the site for the first Danish Chair in the U.S., filled in 1971 by Niels Kofoed, and in 1974 by Sven H. Rossel, who was knighted by Queen Margrethe II of Denmark in 1987 for his contributions to Danish studies (see Sven H. Rossel: Knighted for Contributions to Danish Studies).

Today, extensive coursework is available to students in the department in Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Finnish and Old Icelandic; special studies courses can be taken in Sami, Estonian, Modern Icelandic, and Faroese. "There is no other department outside of Scandinavia that can offer this broad range of Nordic languages," concluded a review committee in 1995. Moreover, the department's library collection is now one of the nation's top five research collections and the best all-around collection on the West Coast. The library has the most important Hans Christian Andersen collection outside of Denmark; its Faroese collection is regarded as the only noteworthy collection in the U.S. And in view of the important role of the Scandinavian-American population in the State's history, the UW library has developed archives containing historical and biographical works, pamphlets, brochures, immigrant literature, journals, and photographs dealing with all of the area's Scandinavian cultures.

Excerpt from the appropriations bill of 1909 that established the UW Department of Scandinavian Languages and Literature:

Maintenance, and establishing a chair in the Scandinavian language, equipment and buildings (from the University current fund until exhausted, balance from the general fund): Provided, That this appropriation for maintenance be made contingent upon the establishment by the Board of Regents, upon the opening of the college year for 1909, and the maintenance of a course in military drill, tactics and other proper theoretical and practical military instruction comprising at least two years for all male undergraduates..................$652,322

[CH. 243.] SESSION LAWS, 1909, p. 879

Upon the occasion of its 75th anniversary, Ernest Henley, then dean of Arts and Sciences, noted:

"The department began in 1909 in part because of the existence of a Scandinavian community in the Puget Sound area; it has nourished the local community by teaching its traditional languages and culture, and it has in turn been nourished by the community; at the same time it has spoken, through the research of its faculty members, to a national and international audience of scholars."

  1. "The History of the Department of Scandinavian Languages and Literature at the University of Washington," Edwin J. Vickner, Scandinavian Studies, 17(3), 85 (1942).
  2. Pathbreakers: A Century of Excellence in Science and Technology at the University of Washington, Deborah L. Illman, Series Editor Alvin L. Kwiram, University of Washington, Office of Research, Seattle, 1996.
  3. "The Scandinavian Department," Terje I. Leiren, 1985.

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