A sword, a hat and three unforgettable days in Helsinki

Honorary degrees are a time-honored tradition among universities to recognize achievements of the best and brightest in a field. While they are all a great honor, the University of Helsinki is unique among institutions in how it bestows this honor, and a Washington University School of Medicine faculty member was the fortunate recipient.

Alan L. Schwartz, PhD, MD, recently received an honorary doctorate of medicine and surgery from the University of Helsinki that came steeped in nearly 400 years of tradition and ceremony and included some unique, symbolic gifts.

Schwartz, the Harriet B. Spoehrer Professor and head of the Department of Pediatrics, was one of 15 physician-scientists from around the globe to receive one of the honorary doctorates, which the university’s medical faculty awards only once a decade. The University of Helsinki is one of the world’s leading research-intensive universities.

“I am very honored to be recognized this way,” says Schwartz, pediatrician-in-chief at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. “The whole event was so very distinctive — there is nothing else quite like it.”

Schwartz, who studied at the University of Helsinki for two years during graduate school, took part in the three-day event, including the formal, five-hour ceremony in early June. Each of the honorary degree recipients was introduced in his or her native language, then presented with a 40-inch sword inscribed with the University of Helsinki’s insignia, a hat made of dark green silk (for medicine) and a diploma. The university has been awarding the swords, hats and diplomas to honorary doctors since it was founded in 1640. The sword represents knowledge, and the hat represents truth.

Honorary degree recipients and university graduates dressed in formal attire, including tuxedo tails, and wore their own “hats of truth” in colors representative of their school, such as law, medicine, theology or philosophy.

Following the ceremony, 550 academic degree recipients and faculty followed a red-carpeted path through the main square of Helsinki to the country’s national church, the Helsinki Cathedral, where there was a mass by the bishop of Finland. The group then processed back to the university hall through crowds of people lining the streets. A large, formal banquet followed, where honorary degree recipients wore medals given to them by their governments. One recipient, a knight from Denmark, wore a Danish Cross dating back to 1209, Schwartz says. The evening concluded with dancing to a Baroque orchestra.

“The honorary degree award ceremony was an enormously thrilling as well as a humbling experience,” Schwartz says. “Thrilling to be part of the culture and history of the University of Helsinki and its 370-year tradition, and humbling in my being selected and lauded in such a grand and ceremonious fashion.”