The Significance of Paavo Nurmi Symposia for Cardiovascular Disease Research

In the article on this page, Kalevi Pyörälä, an internationally renowned cardiologist and a pioneer in heart disease prevention, discusses the significance of the Paavo Nurmi Foundation’s symposia for Finnish research into cardiovascular disease.

The exceptionally high incidence of cardiovascular diseases, in particular coronary heart disease, in the Finnish population became internetionally regonized in the 1960s as a result of the Seven Countries Study. This was an international collaborative investigation into the occurence and risk factors of coronary heart disease led by Professor Ancel Keys. In Finland it was initiated in 1959 under the guidance of Professor Matti Karvonen. In the same decade Professor Pentti Halonen, the founder of modern clinical cardiology in Finland, aided by personal contacts with international leaders in this field, began innovative clinical research into cardiovascular disease. At the same time, Professor Esko Nikkilä, the founder of Finnish school of lipid and lipoprotein research, was performing seminal studies on the relationship between serum lipids and lipoproteins and atherosclerosis. Thus were coronary heart disease and other forms of atherosclerotic vascular disease regonized in the 1960s as a major health problem of the Finns. The Finnish scientific community responded to this challenge by launching epidemiological and clinical studies, as well as basic research on atherosclerosis and diseases caused by this disorder.

Paavo Nurmi, the world-famous runner and Finland’s fines sportsman ever, suffered his first myocardial infarction in 1967 at the age of 60 years. This was a great shock and disapointment to him, because his lifestyle had been very healthy since youth. He was also a wealthy man; after his spectacular career as a sportsman he made another successful career as a building contractor, and in 1968 he dedicated to establish a foundation dedicated to support research on cardiovascular diseases and human health in general. The board of the newly established Paavo Nurmi Foundation, chaired by Nurmi himself, decided to pursue the aims of its founder in two ways; by granting stipends to young, Talented Finnish investigators and by organizing international scientific symposia. Professor Pentti Halonen, the Vice-Chairman of the Board, was asked to plan the programme of the first symposium, scheduled for 1969. Professor Halonen asked his friend Sir John McMichael, The great pioneer of modern cardiology and cardiovascular research in the United Kingdom, to help with the planning.

The first Paavo Nurmi Symposium was held 25th – 27th September 1969, near the south coast town of Porvoo at Haikko Manor, a lovely old mansion estate transformed into a conference center. ”Thrombosis and Coronary Hearth Disease” was the topic of this symposium and the program covered a wide spectrum related research, extending from basic science thought patho-anatomical and clinical studies to epidemiological studies. Invited speakers included 22 renowed experts from nine foreign countries and four young Finnish scientist working on this field. Several other leading Finnish scientists were also invited. Professor Halonen emphazied in his welcome that gathering was meant to be ”a working symposium, much emphasis being on free discussion and personal contacts”. Sir John McMichael in his opening remarks said: ”We are trying to reach established facts based on the experiences of a distinguished assembly of research workers from many countries. Speculation may be desirable but let us keep it to a minimum and concentrate on the laboratory approach, which is the only method likely to lead us to better comprehension and more rational management.” The meeting was a success and the Paavo Nurmi symposium tradition was born.

The working format initiated by the first Paavo Nurmi Symposium became established. The topic of the Second Paavo Nurmi Symposium held in 1971 was ”Early Diagnosis of Coronary Heart Disease” with 17 speakers from seven foreign countries and five from Finland. Paavo Nurmi died in 1973 at the age of 76 from atherosclerosis complications, and to commemorate his outstanding athletic performance ”Physical activity and Coronary Heart Disease” was chosen the topic of the Third Paavo Nurmi Symposium in 1975. Fourteen scientists from abroad and 11 Finns participated. The President of the Republic, Mr. Urho Kekkonen, a friend of Paavo Nurmi from youth and his contemporary as a sportsman (Finnish high jump champion) honoured the symposium by his attendance and said in his address: ”lt it important that symposia are organized where international experts may concentrate on one clear problem, as you have done here now. Geographically, Finland is remote from many of the centers of medical research. We have, therefore, reason to be pleased to see among us, at the present occasion, so many experts of eminent international standing. Paavo Nurmi in his time made his native country well known throughout the world with his almost superhuman athletic achievements. It was with similar ardour that he concentrated on his other career in life, that of a building contractor. His endurance also enabled him to establish a foundation bearing his name. Having followed Paavo Nurmis success from his years of active sportsmanship, I am pleased to see that this foundation is making the world cognizant of his name in a new way”.

The Fourth Symposium held in 1977 focused on ”Sudden Coronary Death”. Invited speakers included 16 foreign scientists and nine from Finland. The topic of the First Symposium was revisited at the Fifth Symposium held in 1979, the 10-year anniversary of the Paavo Nurmi Symposium tradition, because of the advances in thrombosis research. The Fifth Symposium was entitled ”Thrombosis and Blood Vessel Wall Interactions in Coronary Heart Disease” and 18 scientists from 10 foreign countries and six from Finland participated as speakers. ”Neurogenic and Psychological Factors in Coronary Heart Disease” were addressed at the Sixth Symposium in 1981, with 14 scientists from six foreign lands and 10 Finnish scientists as invited speakers.

Professor Halonen had chaired the first six Paavo Nurmi Symposia and also helped the Seventh Symposium held in 1983, but was unable to participate due to severe illness from which he died soon after the symposium. The Seventh Symposium, entitled ”Management of Angina Pectoris”, was chaired by his successor as the Head of the First Department of Medicine at the University of Helsinki, Professor Heikki Frick. Fifteen scientists from abroad and seven from Finland took part. Professor Frick also chaired the Eighth Symposium, devoted to ”Modern Aspects in Hypertension research”, held in 1986. Fifteen scientists from six foreign countries attended, as well as four Finnish scientists. Dr. Petri Kovanen chaired the Ninth Symposium entitled ”Lipoproteins and the Pathobiology of the Arterial intima” in 1989, which was attended by 20 scientists from six foreign lands and seven Finnish scientists as invited speakers. The Tenth Symposium in 1992 focused on ”Infection, Inflammation and Thrombosis” and was chaired by Dr. Ville Valtonen. The invited speakers included 10 scientists from five foreign countries and 11 Finns.

The proceedings of the Paavo Nurmi Symposia have been published either as special volumes or supplement issues of internationally recognised monograph series or medical journals (Advances in Cardiology, Acta Medica Scandinavia, European Heart Journal) and thus the new data and reviews on current scientific knowledge related to the topic of each symposium have rapidly been made available to researchers throughout the world.

Twenty-five years have elapsed since The First Paavo Nurmi Symposium. This period is long enough for us to take stock, and to ask what the significance of the Paavo Nurmi Symposia has been for Finnish research on cardiovascular diseases. It should be remembered that in the 1960s interactions between Finnish scientists and the international scientific world were far less developed than they are now. The numbers of young scientists who had the opportunity of a scientific education in foreign countries were still rather small and Finnish research on cardiovascular diseases was just entering the international scene. In these circumstances the basic idea of the Paavo Nurmi Symposia to bring a group of leading international scientists to Finland for an extended meeting and to promote free scientific and social exchange with Finnish scientists researching similar or identical topics – was really far-sighted. The Paavo Nurmi Symposia have proved an excellent stimulus to developments in Finnish research on cardiovascular diseases. Many important scientific contacts leading to future collaboration in research have been established at these gatherings, and in their unique atmosphere many long-term friendships have been established. The basic idea since the First Symposium has been to translate the latest scientific findings, via critical review, into clinical practice and the management of patients. This current ”state of art” knowledge in cardiovascular medicine has been spread by Finnish participants of the Paavo Nurmi Symposia to the Finnish medical community.

Paavo Nurmi ran Finland onto the world map. Through him, Finnish scientists have received, via the Paavo Nurmi Foundation and Symposia, invaluable support in putting Finnish cardiovascular research on the map of the scientific world. Finnish research on cardiovascular diseases is now recognized internationally. The first honors have been won already, but dedication, hard work and endurance – the guiding principles in Paavo Nurmi’s life – are still needed in our further endeavours. Finnish cardiovascular researchers owe a great debt to Paavo Nurmi and wish the Paavo Nurmi Symposia all the very best as they continue to build on their established tradition of excellence and innovation.


Kalevi Pyörälä MD., Professor
Department of Medicine, University of Kuopio