The Reflections on Paavo Nurmi Symposia

In this article Professor Elspeth B. Smith reflects on the importance of Paavo Nurmi Symposia. She addresses both the history of the Foundation as well as her own experiences at the 1989 symposium.

Biomedical research is not easy. Most projects entail a long hard grid, and results are often contradictory and difficult to interpret because they do not fit textbook expectations. However, one of its great pleasures is to meet, discuss, argue and become friends with colleagues from all over the world.

At present there are so many meetings that a research worker could spend almost every day of the year away from the laboratory. Most of these fall into one of two categories. There are hugh ”world congresses” with 2000 – 4000 (or even more) participants; theoretically these provide a broad overview of the chosen subject, but in practice their unwieldy size and numerous parallel sessions mean that little integration in achieved. The second category are highly specialised meetings in which most participants are working on the same narrowly defined subject, speak the same (scientific) language, and use comparable methods which are often discussed in great detail. I am convinced that the meetings that really generate new ideas are those multidisciplinary approaches which are directed at a defined goal. When clinicians, biochemists, pathologists, cell biologists, epidemiologists, geneticists and those working at the fringes of their subject come together to discuss their problems and ideas, then new collaborations and new lines of work are generated. This is the environment provided by the Paavo Nurmi Symposia.

Britain has been associated with the symposia since their inception, thanks to the late Sir John McMichael. Sir John was the professor of medicine at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School, London from 1946 to 1966, and has been described as the greatest clinical scientist of his generation. He created a research environment in which clinical and laboratory workers were equally able to contribute. As a non-medically qualified pathobiochemist I personally am deeply grateful for his friendship and support. Amongst the distinguished clinicians and scientists who visited his department was the late Professor Pentti I. Halonen. When the Paavo Nurmi foundation was established in 1968 Professor Halonen invited Sir John to be chairman of the first symposium, and together they developed the format of about 24 invited speakers and a total of 45 participants. Half the participants were from Finland and half from other countries all over the world, and they represented a wide range of clinical and laboratory disciplines. This winning format was maintained at the IXth symposium on ”Lipoproteins and the Pathobiology of the Arterial Intima” which I was privileged to attend in 1989. We were presented with ”state of the art” papers on; influx, transport and retention of LDL; modification of LDL in human and animal arteries; macrophage behaviour in vitro and in intima; interaction of lipoproteins, including Lp(a), with extracellular matrix and reverse cholesterol transport (published in Eur Heart J 1990; II (Suppl E)). A striking feature of the meeting was the intensity of the discussion; perhaps facilitated by the horseshoe seating plan, this was interaudience as well as between the audience and the speakers. Discussion continued with equal enthusiasm at the ends of the sessions as we strolled along the shore and through the extensive grounds of Haikko Manor. Obviously, a meeting stands or falls by the quality of the scientific papers presented, but the environment has a major impact on the enjoyment and interactions of the participants. Haikko Manor provided a beautiful and elegant venue; my husband and I remember with pleasure our charming room opening onto a curved and colonnaded balcony. Throughout the meetings we received the most gracious hospitality, culminating with a symphony concert in Finlandia, Helsinki’s magnificent concert hall. When we dispersed on Sunday morning 10th September 1989, all of us were sad to be leaving.


Elspeth B. Smith, DSc, Professor
Department of Clinical Biochemistry, University of Aberdeen