It appears that passion for popularising science is in my blood. This is a rather personal post compared to what I usually write, which came about when I recently learned more about the impressive legacy of my grandmother, and I want to share her story with you. Although she lived in a very different time, Aira Ruishalme felt a very similar calling to mine: she wanted to help science reach a greater audience.
I did know that my grandmother was a journalist and a writer, but as is typical of youth, I was never much interested in the details. That all changed this summer. I took over some old family documents for safe-keeping, and, in an off-hand fashion, opened the thick typewritten manuscript titled ‘Years that rolled by’ (or Vuodet pois vierineet in Finnish) – a family history written to my father. Once I started, I couldn’t put it down. It was fascinating to read about my ancestors’ life in the 1920s (and in part all the way back to the 1640s!), but as the book went on I also came to realize that my grandmother had difficulty limiting her interests (which I find very familiar) – her German pen-pal in Königsberg in 1934 called her tausendsassa, a Jack of all trades, when she was only sixteen. Throughout her life, Aira was deeply engaged in various topics of culture, society, and technology, and what was most fascinating to me was how she felt much like I do about the art of writing and science, particularly the medical sciences.
Aira was the third daughter of the Värilä family, who lived on the very modest income of their father Väinö Värilä, a brass band director in the army – and the situation got no easier when Aira was born, in the midst of the Finnish civil war in 1918. She dreamed of becoming a doctor, but finding funding to get her through University was not likely, and when she flunked maths on her last year of school, her parents told her to quit. She did – and the way to medical school was surely blocked.
She decided to apply for nursing school instead. At 19, with little money, she traveled to Helsinki where her older sister Laura was working, and borrowed a nice skirt from her for the interview – only Laura was notably shorter than she was, so the skirt was five centimeters too short. The old and respectable madam interviewing her did not look kindly upon that, and Aira jokes that it may have been a part of the reason why she was rejected. But as it turned out, that didn’t stop her from trying her hand at nursing work after all.
Stories from the War
Aira’s science interests couldn’t have had a much more different start from mine. Between 1939 and 1944, Finland endured two wars with the Soviet Union. Aira was 21 when she signed up for work as a medical Lotta (Lotta Svärd is a Finnish ‘voluntary auxiliary paramilitary organisation’ for women). At 25 years old, she had experienced things I can’t even imagine.
Unlikely Career Cut Short
In 1939 she briefly worked at a war censorship office in Mikkeli – opening and reading letters and parcels. She comments that the sense of voyeurism quickly wore off and the work became quite tedious. That all ended when the city was bombed to bits in a four-hour raid by the Soviet on the 5th of January 1940. Thirty people died. Sixty-four buildings were destroyed entirely by the bombs and the subsequent fire, and more than hundred buildings were damaged.
This is chilling to read. It contrasts in a terrible way with my first visit to Mikkeli, which happened just a few weeks before I started reading Aira’s book. We stopped there on a sunny day at a beautiful old mansion, indulging ourselves in a fine buffeé lunch. And to think that 77 years earlier, my grandmother walked through that burning city at night.
Taking a Bomb out on a Ride
There were no trains in the aftermath, but she hitched a ride from a lone locomotive with a friendly driver. She kept nice and warm next to the stoker as he fed wood to the furnace, until they dropped her off 40 km later, where she trekked three kilometers through the snow back to her family’s farm.
This was a time when sugar, coffee, wheat, meat, butter, milk, potatoes, even textiles, were rationed. Indulgence, for them, was rye cakes sweetened with saccharine and lingonberry jam. Perhaps the rationing had something to do with my grandmother’s considerable sweet tooth later on…
The farm was no safe haven. Aira often had to jump off the road and hide in a ditch to avoid machine-gun fire from a passing air raid. A month after the first Mikkeli bombing, the whole family thought they would die when a Russian plane was hit in the night and emptied its load on the fields of my great grandparent’s farmhouse. One of the bombs left a crater behind their house. In the morning my great grandfather cracked a joke about now having a pit for AIV fodder (silage).
The animals in the barn survived, though one sheep had miscarried during the attack. Farmers were forbidden to feed much any fodder to their animals around this point – not even hay. The cattle had to make do with straw.
Among the wreckage, they found one bomb still lying on the ground un-detonated, and my great grandfather drove it to the nearest military base on horse and wagon. Thankfully he returned in one piece. Soon after, a Soviet stealth parachute trooper, who had infiltrated the countryside, shot one of the villagers.
Anti-Tank Obstacles, Gas Gangrene, and Black Humour
Then came the Interim Peace, 13th of March 1940, with the high price of surrendering Most of Karelia – 11% of Finland’s territory and 30% of economic assets, including Finland’s second largest city Viipuri, where many of my ancestors come from – and creating almost half a million Karelian refugees.
During the intermission between the wars, Aira was sent to the border to support the troops building bunkers and anti-tank obstacles in the so called Salpa Line (Block Line), whose existence played an important role later in the final peace negotiations with the Soviet.
I’ve walked among those rows of jutting boulders on the ridges on the Russian border – I did so enjoying the nature, having plentiful food and drink, and without ever having given thought to my grandmother, or her time when people had to watch out for air-raids, keep their lights off and their windows covered after dark. The stones were just historical curiosa to me. I wonder how differently I would have felt if I had known that my grandmother may have been there to help set up those very stones.
War broke out again 25th of June 1941. Aira was assigned to work first with patient transportations, then stationed in a war hospital, where she worked as a nurse – a doctor noticed she had the knack for tasks that were supposed to be left only for the ‘white coats’, but it was wartime, and all hands were needed. Aira once tended to a fellow Lotta who was brought back to the hospital from the field, infected with gas gangrene after taking machine gun fire in both feet. The Lotta had been the next in line where anti gas gangrene serum had been administered, but it had run out just before it was her turn – she died in the morning.
Still, surrounded as they were by death and lost limbs, the patients did not lose their propensity to humour. One amputated soldier promised he would chase Aira and her colleagues around after his recovery and slap their bottoms with his stump. Another loudly lamented he would not dare to return to his home in the south, not knowing what the effects would be of having received several liters of blood from a soldier from Savo – a province with the most infamous dialect in Finland.
The Frozen Flood
One day Aira’s department received a group of soldiers who had suffered frostbite. Temperatures had reached minus 37 degrees celsius in the city of Poventsa the night before – and the Soviets had blown up the sluice gates of a channel at the edge of the city, flooding the area, and Finnish soldiers found themselves flushed away in an icy stream. The lucky ones who were fished out of it again had to have their frozen clothes cut off them before they were sent on for medical help.
Incidentally, while reading up on the events I found a testimony of one of the soldiers carried away by that flood, who was later brought to a war hospital – likely the very one where Aira worked. Maybe he could be the one posing with Aira in the photo above? Who knows. Five of his six comrades in arms were lost in the flood.
You can read the fascinating and horrifying recollection of being dragged through a fog-filled city in the freezing flash flood in Finnish here. The Armed Forces photography archive shows a series of eerie shots if you search for ‘Poventsa’, like one where a tank has tipped upside down and frozen fast in the flood – it must have hit the city with considerable force.
The City That Was Saved by a Song
For a more uplifting story: once in September 1941 Aira was back home on a holiday from her work at the war hospital, and she and her mother turned on the radio. It played a famous Finnish song called Säkkijärven polkka (polka is a style of fast dance music often played with an accordion). When it finished, however, it started right up again. And again, and again, and again. It continued playing without pause the next day. And the day after that.
It turned out that the channel was being used by the Finnish army in coordination with the Finnish National Radio. The Finns had recently re-captured Viipuri, Finland’s second largest city, but the Soviets had scattered radio-controlled mines throughout the castle and other strategic locations. The mines were activated by playing a specific chord on a given radio frequency. The Finns had figured out the frequencies, and to block the activation they jammed those channels … with non-stop Säkkijärven polkka. No more mines exploded during that time. It could be said that the song saved large parts of Viipuri.
It was played in total 1500 times over five days. Finnish Radio (Yleisradio) got their radio emitter cars back from the army five days later, when an express order of radio jammers arrived, and the army continued jamming the frequencies for a couple of months more, until they estimated that the batteries in the mines would have to have run out.
My grandfather (thanks to the rather skeptical audience they found in their offspring) once called the war office after the war to confirm this story (I wonder if I didn’t inherit some of those obsessive evidence-digging genes…). It’s also detailed in Finnish in a lengthy Wikipedia article as well as a short one in English. Of course, if you’d like to honour the song’s contribution, don’t hesitate to give it a listen.
Typhoid Fever, Vaccines, and Antibiotics
Considering the time I’ve spent writing about vaccines, it is of particular interest to me to learn that Aira organised and performed emergency vaccination campaigns during typhoid fever epidemics, twice – latter occasion in 1942 in a national aircraft factory, where many men fainted as soon as they saw her come with her needles.
As a vaccine-themed side note: typhoid fever? Anyone heard of it in the modern times? Or typhoid fever vaccinations? Funny enough, if you listen to the logic of the loud (but marginal) group of anti-vaccine activists, you could sort of expect to find this vaccine in the childhood vaccine schedule – many of them believe vaccines are unnecessary, and that infectious diseases largely went away thanks to better sanitation.
Well, it happens that typhoid fever is one of the diseases that indeed largely went away with the help of improved sanitation, hygiene, and access to clean drinking water – unlike many other diseases, which spread efficiently via airways and droplet spread. No infected water, no need for typhoid fever vaccinations, which is why we don’t see a typhoid vaccine in our vaccine programs today.
The disease is also treatable with antibiotics, although that wasn’t an option back then. Penicillin had just been introduced, and was available for treatment for many allied soldiers as early as in 1944. Finland however fought its wars without, being at war with one of the allied forces (Soviet Union).
My grandmother was actually the first person in Finland whose pneumonia was treated with penicillin (injections in the buttock every four hours) – five years later, in 1947. The doctors followed her speed of recovery with awe. I can only imagine the relief and gratitude that must have accompanied witnessing such advancement of medicine, taming diseases which before had routinely left patients fighting for their lives.
Finding Her Calling
Before the end of the war, Aira spent some time working as a secretary of the war office in Mikkeli, and got to follow the army’s attorney general as he went to interview prisoners. This fascinated her, rekindling her school-time love of journalism, which was the occupation that carried her over to the peacetime world, when the war ended in 19th of September 1944.
Aira’s first journalist position was at a newspaper Savon Sanomat (the province infamous for its dialect). She was soon freed from the daily news rotation and became a ‘flying reporter’, doing more in-depth pieces. Her interests were broad, ranging from music, literature, theatre, flying, women’s role in politics, nature, refugees, and so on – to things like artificial egg hatching technology. Story opportunities occasionally brought her back to the realm of life sciences, and in 1946 she met my future grandfather while interviewing a group of academics doing a field study of physiology using the participants of a national ditch-digging competition as their guinea-pigs.
The interviews of the other researchers were a success, but that of a certain chemist, Rafael Ruishalme, yielded nothing but his name on her note block, despite quite a few words exchanged between them in his field-work-office among a multitude of urine sample bottles collected from the ditch-diggers. I think I can safely say my grandma wasn’t one to bat an eye at urine samples. It certainly didn’t put a damper on their romance – Aira says it was her singing Chopin’s La valse de l’adieu to him that was the point of no return.
Diving into the World of Medical Science
After working as reporters in several provinces of Finland, both my grandparents finally settled down in the capital, Helsinki. Aira began to do a considerable amount of background research to complete her practical experience in medicine. She published a great many medical themed pieces in periodicals aimed at the general public in a time when popularizing science was something new.
She did a series of interviews of Finnish women in science to the magazine Viuhka in 1951, starting with her acquaintance Eeva Jalavisto, a Professor in Physiology and later a member of the Finnish Academy of Sciences, who, incidentally, was the one who had sent my grandfather out onto the field to do that fated physiology study.
A traditional Finnish magazine, featuring investigative journalism, Suomen Kuvalehti, eagerly received Aira’s medical pieces, allowing her to dictate her own space requirements. Among them was a Finnish first: an introduction of the EEG technique in 1952. She also wrote to several Finnish medically themed magazines (like the ‘Practical Doctor’, Käytännön Lääkäri), and loyally for decades to ‘Healthcare’ (Terveydenhuoltolehti) – an official magazine of the Finnish Doctors’ Association (Duodecim, founded in 1881).
Aira’s list of interviewees is quite impressive too, including a wide variety of notable members of the Finnish society – actors, conductors, authors, musicians, entrepreneurs, and ministers, but also a great many notable scientists. Some of those were: Arvo Ylppö, a Finnish pediatrician, credited for drastically reducing child mortality rates to the levels we have today, and for being the father of the Finnish child welfare clinic system (neuvolat); H.R. Nevanlinna, a Finnish doctor who studied blood antigens and discovered the reason why first-born babies are not affected by the Rh-incompatibility; and the first female professor of jurisprudence, and a minister of Justice in Finland, Inkeri Anttila, who developed the Finnish criminal politics in a direction that was rational, humane, and evidence-based. Aira also interviewed A. I. Virtanen, a Finnish chemist who was awarded the Noble prize in 1945 for his invention of AIV fodder (originally prepared in ground pits, hence Aira’s father’s joke after the bomb had damaged their farm).
Taking On New Media
Aira didn’t hesitate trying to do something new. The first Finnish television program was broadcast 1957, and only a decade later, Aira began her career as a writer for television. She worked to make accurate medical reporting a part of popular TV. She did groundbreaking work with dramatized documentaries, a style of narrative presentation which she named ‘fact times fiction’. Her first medical TV-series in 1971 was called ‘Patient X’ (Potilas X), where she had doctors playing doctors, helping make real medical topics more accessible to people. Her next TV-series ‘Hard Laws of Life’ (Olemisen Kovat Lait) in 1972 introduced into public awareness topics like organ donation, artificial fertilization, as well as ADHD and learning disabilities (then known under the umbrella of MBD) – issues still so new and strange that cartoonists ridiculed her for them.
Her later programs also covered things like the workings of the judicial system and social security system – and for the latter, she interviewed my maternal grandmother, who was a dedicated social worker as well a strong matriarchal presence in my family.
Aira managed to make these programs appealing to a general audience. They were not only accurate, but also popular. On two occasions they were listed the most viewed programs of the month in Finland’s first commercial network (MainosTeleVisio or MTV, founded 1957), gathering more than million, and more than two million viewers, respectively, in a country of 4.5 million people.
Life Well Lived
My grandmother made science communication history in several ways, so I am very proud for the recognition she received for her work: she was granted the national Artist’s Pension (a privilege only granted to about 50 people each year), and later awarded the Cross of Merit of the Order of the Lion of Finland, presented to her by the largest publishing house of periodicals in the country (nowadays called Otavamedia), on the Finnish independence day, 6th of December in 1982.
I was one year old at the time. My personal memories of her have nothing to do with medals or magazine articles, but then, they are mostly limited to a vivid image of her face, and of a ginger porcelain cat she had, which I was so fond of that she it gave to me.
She passed away when I was six. I am sad that I did not get to know her better while she lived – people tell me that she was a joy to talk to. She was always eager to discuss almost any topic, and she would give her undivided attention to the person she was talking to, interested in the story of everyone she met.
Her death was reported in the largest newspaper of the country, and many people attended her funeral, among them people like Johannes Virolainen, a former prime minister and known figure of Finnish politics (who served in six ministerial posts over 25 years). My father saved the card from the flowers he and his wife left on her grave, which in its simplicity feels like an appropriate image to end with:
I am so very grateful that Aira did leave behind the story of her life. It is very precious to get to read it in her own words, and finally get to know my grandmother, whose voice comes alive in my mind as I read, and whose humour, diverse interests, and endless fascination with life resonate so much with me.
This is the magic of the written word, that lives on even after we die, and within the words lives a spark of the people who wrote them.