The Biochemical Research Institute was located at Kalevankatu 56 in Helsinki

The plant laboratory of the Foundation for Chemistry Research

Laboratory personnel during 1930s

A.I. Virtanen discussing results with a scientist

A.I. Virtanen received the Nobel prize in chemistry on 10.12. 1945 

From the  Foundation for  Chemistry Research                     to the Foundation for Nutrition Research

In 1929, Foundation for Chemistry Research (Kemiantutkimus-Säätiö) was founded on the initiative of Artturi Ilmari Virtanen to conduct chemical and biochemical research to benefit Finnish agriculture and forestry. Virtanen worked at the time as the director of Valio's laboratory and wanted to centralize research related to dairy products to Valio's laboratory and other chemical research in a separate research institute. Valio's laboratory and the Foundation for Chemistry Research together formed the Biochemical Research Institute, which was located in Kalevankatu, in the center of Helsinki. Biochemistry was a new field of science in Finland at the time, and education and research took mostly place in the Biochemical Research Institute, headed by A.I. Virtanen.

Research conducted in the Foundation for Chemistry Research was broad and wide ranging; research topics ranged from the value of cow manure as a nitrogen fertilizer, hibernation of hedgehogs, tuberculosis, vitamins and their preservation in foods, prerequisites of growing maize in Finland, mechanisms of fermentation, bacterial spores, different enzymes and urea feeding of cows. 

Virtanen's favorite topic was, however, the metabolism of plants and specifically biological nitrogen binding. On the top floor of the Biochemical Research Institute was located a plant laboratory, where biological nitrogen fixation in root nodules of leguminous plants was studied. The great goal of Virtanen was that Finland would be self-sufficient in nitrogen and fodder production. Research related to biological nitrogen fixation was continued until the 1960s.

The development of methods for preserving fodder and butter, which Virtanen had invented in the 1920's was continued at the Biochemical Research Institute. For these inventions, AIV fodder and AIV milk salt, Virtanen was awarded the Nobel prize in chemistry in 1945. Part of the prize money he donated to the Foundation for Chemistry Research.

The research fields that Virtanen found most important were population nutrition and improving the nutritional status of Finns. He worked in the Finnish Population nutrition committee established in 1936 and led a study on the nutritional status of different population groups in Finland. Solutions to identified vitamin deficiencies were investigated in the laboratory of the Foundation. Virtanen's position as an expert in human nutrition strengthened and questions related to human nutrition formed a growing part of research done by the Foundation.

In 1980, the Foundation was renamed to Foundation for Nutrition Research and thereafter the focus of the activities has been in human nutrition. During 1980-2000, The Foundation for Nutrition Research funded three-year research assistanships for PhD students. The doctoral theses conducted focused e.g. on probiotics, health effects of different compounds in milk and dietary fats.

In 2008, a part-time, temporary professorship in nutritional physiology was established in the medical faculty of the University of Helsinki with a donation from the Foundation.

Seminars and symposiums have been an elemental part of the activities of the Foundation for Nutrition Research from the beginning. Their aim has been to increase nutrition knowledge in Finland and to enable young scientists to engage with international top scientists.

From 1970, the Foundation has awarded the A.I. Virtanen prize to commemorate the legagy of its founder together with the  Finnish Chemists Society and Societas Biochemica Biophysica et Microbiologica Fenniae.

Source: Touko Perko, Kalevankadun Akatemia (2009)

Photos: Valio Ltd

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