The Estonian Statue With The Champagne Treatment

One of Estonia’s most famous scientists is the founder of embryology, Karl Ernst von Baer. Each year, Estonian students honor his life and achievements by giving his monument in Tartu Park a bubble bath to remember - with champagne and beer.

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Karl Ernst von Baer monument in Tartu Estonia
Monument to Karl Ernst von Baer, the founding father of embryology, in Tartu, Estonia. Photo: iStock.com / Klug-photo

While university students have the “time-honored tradition of doing nothing useful,” as described by one Estonian journalist, students in Tartu, Estonia honor this tradition spectacularly. It’s a ritual dating back to the 70s when Estonia celebrated International Friendship Days in the spring as a part of the USSR. During this period, there is an age-old tradition called Walpurgis Night, which is held on the last night of April across Northern Europe. It generally entails a youth festival marked with parties, concerts, cultural events, and lots of alcohol.

The feast is not dissimilar to a medieval carnival, having in common the idea of surrendering the city’s rule to students. Tartu students have decided that while they might not be able to have an actual drink with their monument on Walpurgis Night, that doesn’t mean the statue can’t be a party to the celebration. As the rector of Tartu University is socially obliged to have a symbolic mug of beer with his students, the same applies to the most famous scholar of the country, Karl Ernst von Baer (1792-1876), embryologist and discoverer of mammalian ovaries.

statue of karl ernst von baer in champagne bath making by students in Tartu
Famed statue of Karl Ernst von Baer receiving its annual champagne bath, courtesy of Tartu University students. Photo: SILLE ANNUK / Scanpix Baltics / Forum

After his doctorate, Von Baer studied medicine in Tartu and moved to different notable universities, such as Vienna, St. Petersburg, and Königsberg. He returned to Tartu to spend the last decades of his life. A commemorative statue was erected in Tartu Toomemägi Park in 1886, just a few years after his death. Why wash it with champagne and beer, then? Sometimes it’s hard to say where the custom comes from, even for those who keep it alive. It could be that it’s just a form of joyful celebration with an amusing (though silent) drinking buddy.

However, there’s also a more likely interpretation. Some say that the Walpurgis Night shower is precisely an act of bathing. Von Baer, a biologist in XIX c., was very interested in hygiene, and one of his dissertations covered the topic of endemic diseases in Estonia. As the overall health of its citizens was poor, he suggested the necessity to improve living conditions and sanitary habits, which included bathing. With hindsight, we know today that he was on to something with his emphasis on bathing. Now von Baer himself serves as an example of how to do hygiene right. Bubbly bath, anyone?

Przemysław Bociąga

is a Polish journalist and essayist based in Warsaw. An anthropologist and art historian by education, he specializes in combining cultural phenomena with compelling narrative. He has authored and co-authored several books covering lifestyle and history. The most recent of them is “Impeccable. The biography of masculine image”. He has contributed to many leading magazines, both in print and online, and teaches cultural anthropology to college students.

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