As the university was founded in 1640 by Queen Christina of Sweden (1626–1689) in Turku, as the Royal Academy of Turku, the senior part of the school formed the core of the new university, while the junior year courses formed a grammar school. It was the third university founded in the Swedish Empire, following Uppsala University and the Academia Gustaviana in Dorpat (predecessor to the University of Tartu in Estonia).
The second period of the University's history covers the period when Finland was a Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire, from 1809 to 1917. As Finland became part of the Russian Empire in 1809, Tsar Alexander I expanded the University and allocated substantial funds to it. Following the Great Fire of Turku in 1827, higher education within the country was moved to Helsinki, the new administrative heart of the Grand Duchy, in 1828, and renamed the Imperial Alexander University of Finland in honour of the late benefactor of the University. In the capital the primary task of the University was to educate the Grand Duchy’s civil servants. The University became a community subscribing to the new Humboldtian ideals of science and culture, studying humanity and its living environment by means of scientific methods. The new statutes of the University enacted in 1828 defined the task of the University as promoting the development of “the Sciences and Humanities within Finland and, furthermore, educating the youth for the service of the Tsar and the Fatherland”. The Alexander University was a centre of national life that promoted the birth of an independent Finnish State and the development of Finnish identity. The great men of 19th Century Finland, Johan Vilhelm Snellman, Johan Ludvig Runeberg, Elias Lönnrot and Zachris Topelius, were all involved in the activities of the University. The university became a major center of Finnish cultural, political, and legal life in 19th Century Finland, and became a remarkable primum mobile of the nationalist and liberal cultural movements, political parties, and student organisations. In the 19th century university research changed from being collection-centred to being experimental, empirical, and analytical. The more scientific approach of the University led to specialisation and created new disciplines. As the scientific disciplines developed, Finland received ever more scholarly knowledge and highly educated people, some of whom entered rapidly evolving industry or the government.
The third period of the university's history began with the creation of the independent Republic of Finland in 1917, and with the renaming of the university as the University of Helsinki. Once Finland gained her independence in 1917 the University was given a crucial role in building the nation state and, after World War Two, the welfare society. Members of the academic community promoted the international relations of the new state and the development of its economic life. Furthermore, they were actively involved in national politics and the struggle for equality. In the 20th century, scholarly research at the University of Helsinki reached the level of the European elite in many disciplines. This was manifested, among other things, by international recognitions granted to its professors, such as the Fields medal received by the mathematician Lars Ahlfors (1936), the Nobel Prize in Chemistry granted to Professor A.I. Virtanen (1945) and the Nobel Prize in Medicine shared by Professor Ragnar Granit (1967). After World War II, university research focused on improving Finnish living conditions and supporting major changes in the structure of society and business. The University also contributed to the breakthrough of modern technology.
The progress of scientific development created many new disciplines and faculties at the University of Helsinki. At present the University comprises 11 faculties, 500 professors and almost 40,000 students. The University has established as its goal to further its position as one of Europe’s top multidisciplinary research universities.