The island of lepers

The island of Seili has a long and colorful history. There has been agriculture since the 16th century and archeological findings have shown that people have visited the island already in the middle ages (= medieval times).

The history of Seili as a hospital island began in 1619 when the king of Sweden Kustaa II Aadolf gave an order to find a proper island for a leper colony. Leprosy landed in Finland in the Middle Ages and a new leper colony was needed. Seili was chosen because it is near Turku-Stockholm shipping-lane, it had a sheltered anchorage and a sandy ridge for cemetery. The construction work started in the next year. On the present peninsula of the church, which used to be a separate island, was built a small village which had its own sauna and bakery and later also a church.

The first patients came from the St. George’s hospital in Turku. A couple of years later also the patients from so called “House of The Holy Spirit” in Turku were transferred into Seili. They were not lepers but people who couldn’t take care of themselves, i.e. mentally ill, old, blind and crippled persons. They lived on the main island with the employees of the hospital.

The patients came on the island for the rest of their lives. With them they had a lifelong cost of taking care and a coffin. In the 17th century the death rate of the patients was 20-30% a year. At that time the doctor visited the hospital only seldomly and the patients were left on their own.

In the middle of the 18th century, no more lepers were taken into the hospital but only mentally ill people. The last leper of Seili died in 1785 . Leprosy still existed in Finland but as it came rarer, some leper hospitals were shut down.

Mental hospital

During its time, the leper hospital was the biggest one in Finland and so was the mental hospital, which continued its function after the death of the last leper. From the 18th century, only the church and the pastor’s house have remained.

In 1809, there was the so called war of Finland between Sweden and Russia. Russia won and Finland became a part of Russia. The emperor ordered that the hospital of Seili should be checked. In the inspection it was noticed that the patients barely had decent clothes, their rooms were dirty and smelly and there were no bedclothes or bed straw. There was enough food but in everything else the housekeeper had saved, even though there should have been enough money for the patients needs. The report stated that changes must be done. The clergyman of Nauvo was ordered to keep watch over the hospital.

Soon after the inspection, a plan on building a new hospital was also made and the city architect Per Johan Gylich was asked to do blueprints for the main building. In 1840 a new and modern mental hospital was built in Lapinlahti, Helsinki. Therefore, a decision was made by the medical counsil that the mental hospital of Seili should be an asylum for mental patients with no hope for covering. In 1851 the construction work for the main building began. The middle part of the neo-classic building is from the 1850s, the east and west wings were built somewhat later. The two bigger communal rooms in the corners were built last, in the 1890s. After the new main building was ready, 67 patients could be kept there. If patients were violent or restless, they could be isolated in their 2×2 m rooms, all from one hour to severeal months. The new main building also included a day room for working and a canteen.  By this time, the hospital still didn’t have its own doctor but the doctor of Rymättylä came regularly in the island. The office of pastor was discontinued and the ministry of Nauvo was ordered to take care of the church of Seili.

Apart from the wars in the beginning of the 18th century, the wars or years of scarcity in Finland haven’t had much effect on the life in Seili. In the end of the 19th century, the hospital got finally its own doctor, Arthur Dahl, and the diagnosis of the patients begun to be more precise. In 1889, the Medical council also decided that male patients would be transferred to the hospital of Käkisalmi in south-eastern Finland, and that the hospital of Seili would continue as a mental hospital for mentally ill criminal women. Most of the patients were still considered incorrigible.

The Archipelago Research Institute

In 1962, the hospital was shut down and the remaining patients were sent to other mental hospitals, units of local healt-care centres or hospitals. Some elderly patients were also sent to nursing homes.

Two years after the closing, in 1964, the buildings and ca. 17  hectare land area were given by the state to the University of Turku for teaching and research purposes. As a result, the University of Turku established a field station, the Archipelago Research Institute, which has since then operated on the island providing research and teaching support services and conducting marine research. Since the beginning, the Institute has specialized in long-term environmental and at-sea monitoring – several monitoring programs have been running on the island since the end of the 1960s.

Nowadays, the Institute is part of the Biodiversity Unit of the University of Turku. At Seili, the Institute not only provides infrastructure for research but also conducts several outreach activities, providing information on the Baltic and Archipelago Sea for groups and individual visitors.

For more information on the museum church and guided tours, please see VisitSeili’s webpage