Few people of her distinction have been as unassuming as Sophie Mannerheim, though it would be difficult to find any name more worthy to appear in the Finnish peerage, if the word "peer" be taken in its highest sense of a refinement which is the product of centuries of cultivation and long years of inherited culture, both of mind and body. Her whole gracious presence, her finely-shaped head, so proudly set upon her shoulders, her fine carriage, the soft clear tones of her voice, every physical characteristic was but the outer harmonious expression of her spiritual qualities - warm-heartedness, courage, generosity, and a noble breadth of vision - everything, in short, that is meant by breeding. As great as was her appreciation of the beautiful and the good in human nature was her horror of all that was false, corrupt, narrow, selfish, self-satisfied, or vain-glorious, with which she, no less than all of us, came into contact on her way through life. But she had a wonderful capacity for forgetting the bad and remembering only the good...It was marvelous to see how she was able to win trust and confidence. People felt that she would never betray a secret, or smile at a naïve confession. Their affairs became her affairs and their joys and sorrows her own private concern. She was their pillar and support; hers were the strong hands to soothe and relieve all suffering either of the body or the soul...When she came upon some tragic incident in life, she never said, "How terrible to see so much distress," without adding immediately, "What can be done to help? What can I do?" And in the same instant a plan was ready, and in the next it was carried into effect, and very often help found...
Sophie Mannerheim was born on the family estate of Louhisaari. She was the first of the seven children of Count Carl Robert Mannerheim and his wife, Hélène von Julin. Hélène was known for her noble and loving character; Sophie, it seems, inherited her qualities. She was a very responsible young girl, who took good care of her younger siblings. The Mannerheim children's happy childhood was shattered in 1880 by their father's financial ruin, and, tragically, by his abandonment of the family. The following year, at the age of 18, Sophie lost her mother, who died, broken-hearted. Relatives took charge of the children. Sophie lived in Stockholm with her aunt, wife of the North Pole explorer, Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld.
Sophie was obliged, by financial need, to undertake work which would have been traditionally considered inappropriate for an aristocratic lady. Nonetheless, she showed energy, ability, and dedication, winning the admiration and respect of all those who crossed her path. At different times, she worked as a governess, a statistician, and a bank cashier.
In 1896, Sophie married Sir Hjalmar Linder, another Swedish-speaking Finnish aristocrat, and began a new life on the beautiful country estate of Laxpojo. Sadly, the marriage was childless, and unhappy. Hjalmar and Sophie were divorced in 1899. Later that year, Sophie entered the St. Thomas Hospital, in London, to study nursing.
Sophie loved nursing. According to Berta Edelfelt:
Her extraordinary capacity for work, which could only partly be satisfied by either in the routine of cash and figures or in an uneventful country life, now found full scope. It was a real joy to her to scrub walls and floors at the beginning of her training, and, as "Nurse Mannerheim," to take care of the sick in the hospital, and, later, as a district nurse, to go out into the poorest quarters of the great metropolis to instruct and help. It was an endless source of happiness to her to see how her advice and encouragement could bring comfort to those embittered by pain and misery, how neglected homes gradually improved and how the children smiled to see her; and she always looked back on that work - regarded by many as dangerous- with a deep sense of happiness and satisfaction. She had at last found the work she desired, not for money or for her own sake, but for others, work into which she could put her whole heart and soul...Here was her place; now she felt she had found her mission in life.
Sophie returned to Finland in 1902. Two years later, she became Matron of the Surgical Hospital in Helsinki. She found the hospital's administration and organization seriously inadequate. Yet, she succeeded, despite considerable opposition, in introducing comprehensive reforms. For example, the period of training for nurses was extended from one to three years. Their living conditions were improved, and their salaries and pensions were increased. More staff was provided in the wards, and night duty was systematically arranged. Among other charitable and generous initiatives, Sophie also personally funded courses for patients (technical subjects for adults and school subjects for children) who had to spend long periods in the hospital. As many poverty-stricken patients, after their discharge, relapsed into illness due to unhygienic conditions, Sophie collected clean clothes for these unfortunate people. During her time as Matron, conditions at the hospital progressed by leaps and bounds. Sophie also took a great interest in numerous other initiatives; the nursing school, the student's home, the convalescent home, the nurses' holiday home, a new nursing journal, Epione... Sophie's energy and passion knew no bounds. She became famous, both in Finland and abroad. From 1922 to 1925, she served as President of the International Council of Nurses. Honors were showered upon her. She was awarded the Florence Nightingale Medal and Finland's prestigious White Rose.
Throughout her life, Sophie was very close to her brother, Gustaf, later the Marshal of Finland. She provided him (as evinced in many family letters) with tender, sensitive, almost maternal love. She was also a great patriot. As Berta Edelfelt wrote:
Sophie Mannerheim was passionately loyal to her country. She worked first and foremost for the good of humanity and secondly for the glory of Finland. She loved her country far beyond all thoughts of politics, she loved the very earth, the very people, and wanted her country to distinguish itself in every possible way. She, too shared in the general enthusiasm for the war of freedom, she more than any other, for it was her own brother who led the White Army to victory, and the 16th May, 1918, (the date of the White Army's entry into Helsinki) was certainly the happiest date of her life.
During Finland's tragic civil war, Sophie had remained in Helsinki, in the territory controlled by the Marxist revolutionaries. With courage and compassion, she continued, during this brutal and dangerous period, to fulfill her duties as a hospital nurse. She cared for both "Whites" and "Reds" alike. In the 1920's, Sophie (like her brother, General Mannerheim) worked hard to heal the scars of the civil war, and to address the country's urgent social problems.
During the post-war years, she worked as one inspired. She bought a property which was called the Children's Castle and turned it into a home and educational institute for children whom the war had left unprotected. She also collected funds for the poor and infirm, for the countless numbers of "pauvres honteux," who would not stoop to beg, and were literally dying of starvation. It was most touching to see the perfect faith they had in her power to help and comfort. In their eyes nothing was impossible for her; they came to her in their misfortunes and sorrows, as to an all-powerful being, who could protect them from all the trials and troubles of this life. And when there were no more funds to give, she helped by her gay courage and never-flagging interest...
A very great lady!