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Resources on Yale History: A Brief History of Yale

A Brief History of Yale

By Judith Schiff, Chief Research Archivist, Manuscripts and Archives


Yale University had its beginnings with the founding of the New Haven Colony in 1638 by a band of 500 Puritans who fled from persecution in Anglican England. It was the dream of the Reverend John Davenport, the religious leader of the colony, to establish a theocracy and a college to educate its leaders. Purchases and plans for a college library date back to 1656 but were suspended when King Charles II forced the colony to unite with Connecticut in 1665.

According to the early histories of Yale, a group of ten ministers led by the Reverend James Pierpont of New Haven met in nearby Branford in 1700 to found a college. Each minister presented a donation of books, stating, “I give these books for the founding [of] a College in this Colony.”

In 1701 New Haven was designated a co-capital of the colony with Hartford. When the Governor and General Assembly met in New Haven for the first time in October, they passed “An Act for Liberty to Erect a Collegiate School.” Its mission was to instruct youth in the arts and sciences and fit them “for Publick employment both in Church & Civil State.” The school’s appointed trustees selected Saybrook, a town at the mouth of the Connecticut River, as the most convenient site for the school and Abraham Pierson, a minister in Killingworth, as the first rector, or president. However, the college operated in his home until his death in 1707, when it moved to Saybrook.

Over time the out-of-the-way location proved to be unpopular. In 1716, the site was moved to New Haven, whose citizens had outbid all other communities in both land and money to support the college. In 1718, when wealthy London merchant Elihu Yale—step grandson of Theophilus Eaton, co-founder of the New Haven colony—donated over 400 books, a portrait of King George I, and cloth goods that sold for 562 pounds, the college was named Yale College.

Connecticut Hall, a fine brick structure (now the oldest standing Yale and New Haven building), was constructed in the early 1750s. Students and alumni of the 1770s so actively supported the American revolutionary cause that the British looked upon Yale as a hotbed of sedition. Yale patriots included Nathan Hale, Noah Webster, Joel Barlow, and Timothy Dwight. On July 4, 1779 Yale President Ezra Stiles (1778–1795) first spied the British fleet approaching New Haven harbor through his telescope from the steeple of the college chapel. The student militia helped defend the town the following day.

Academic Advances

Yale’s next president, Timothy Dwight the elder (1795–1817), advanced the sciences in America by appointing Benjamin Silliman the first science professor in America in 1802. Over the next half century Silliman developed both the arts and sciences: working to establish a medical school in 1810; bringing the fine arts to academia and the city by arranging for John Trumbull’s paintings to be given to Yale and housed in the country’s first university art gallery in 1832; and founding a graduate school and scientific school in 1847.

Yale led the way in graduate and specialized school education, creating in the same year the first professorships in agricultural and applied chemistry. In 1852 the engineering school and the degree of Bachelor of Philosophy (science) were instituted. Instruction was consolidated in 1854 into the Yale Scientific School that, renamed the Sheffield Scientific School, became Connecticut’s Land Grant College.

Graduate education in America advanced when Yale awarded the first doctor of philosophy degrees in America in 1861. In 1876 New Haven native Edward Bouchet received the degree of Doctor of Philosophy from Yale, the first doctorate awarded to an African American by an American university. Bouchet was also the first African American to graduate from Yale College, in 1874, and the first to be elected to Phi Beta Kappa.

In the 1820s the divinity and law schools were established, and by mid-century Yale was the largest college in the United States. In 1869 the first university art school—Yale’s first coeducational school—was opened with the donation of a New Haven alumnus and his wife, Augustus and Caroline Street. In the 1870s, the Peabody Museum opened to exhibit the dinosaur and other bones and fossils collected by Professor O.C. Marsh and his “bonediggers” during their Western expeditions. In 1880 Yale enrollment reached 1000, and in 1887 Yale College changed its name to Yale University. Women were admitted to the graduate school in 1892, and seven of the group received doctor of philosophy degrees in 1894. Later that year the music department was ranked as a separate school. From 1870 to 1899, the faculty grew from 64 to 260, and the student body from 755 to 2684. Gifford Pinchot (Class of 1889), chief of the U.S. Forest Service, established the forestry school in 1900 with funds given by his family.

Yale’s great teachers and researchers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century—physicist Josiah Willard Gibbs, lexicographer William Dwight Whitney, economist Irving Fisher, sociologist William Graham Sumner, and English literature professor William Lyon Phelps, to name a few—earned international reputations. For two centuries all of Yale’s presidents had been ministers, but in 1899 the Yale Corporation, its board of trustees, elected the first lay president: Arthur Twining Hadley, an economist specializing in railroad legislation. In the first quarter of the twentieth century, Yale made further advances in the education of women, admitting them to the medical school in 1916 and to the law school in 1919, and establishing a school of nursing in 1923. The first honorary degree Yale awarded to a woman went to Jane Addams in 1910.

Athletic Roots

College sports and its associated traditions in the United States were largely developed at Yale, beginning with the first collegiate rowing races in the New Haven harbor in 1843. The first intercollegiate races against Harvard in 1859 not only established the ancient Yale-Harvard rivalry but the use of school colors as well, Yale Blue and Harvard Crimson, to identify the teams. Yale’s greatest sports contributions have been in the field of football, owing mainly to Walter Camp (Class of 1880), who transformed the rough and tumble game of rugby into American football.

Yale’s football golden years lasted through the 1930s, when two of the first three Heisman trophy winners were Yale men. Some of Yale’s greatest football heroes were in fact fictional: Dink Stover of the best-selling novel, Stover at Yale, and Frank Merriwell, whose exploits were followed in 250 dime novels. The Yale Bowl, the largest stadium constructed since the Roman Colosseum when it was completed in 1914, was filled with a record 80,000 fans for the Yale-Harvard game of 1920. Yale also led the way in developing the sports of swimming by coach Bob Kiphuth; basketball with the introduction of the five-man team in 1895; and boxing with the 1920 Olympic gold-medalist Eddy Eagan.

Building Boom

By the end of the nineteenth century, the Old Campus had grown into a large quadrangle housing the library, chapel, dormitories, and classrooms. Across Elm Street were the beautiful Victorian Gothic Divinity School, the Berkeley Oval complex of dormitories, and the Old Gym. During and after World War I a new campus was planned and constructed. The first major project, completed in 1921, was the Memorial Quadrangle, later named Branford and Saybrook Colleges. Looming above the Quadrangle was Harkness Tower, for many years the world’s tallest freestanding tower and the city’s most visible landmark.

The administration of President James Rowland Angell (1921–1937) was marked by great development of the graduate and professional schools as well as the college. A large bequest from John W. Sterling and donations of the Harkness family enabled the university to reform its educational system and build residential colleges, graduate and professional schools, and libraries to strengthen and broaden its educational mission. The centerpiece of the Sterling buildings is the Sterling Memorial Library, completed in 1930. Featuring the largest library stack tower constructed to that time, Sterling is now the hub of a library system that is one of the world’s largest.

Edward S. Harkness (Class of 1897), transformed Yale, first in the area of the arts by gifts to establish a drama school in 1924 and construct a new art gallery, completed in 1928. In 1930, Yale accepted his plan to construct and endow the undergraduate residential college system to develop closer student-teacher relationships and create communities composed of cross-sections of the student body. Yale’s extensive building program in the late twenties and thirties economically mitigated the effects of the Great Depression on the city of New Haven.

Political and Military Leadership

Yale graduates have played an important role in the political and military life of the United States. Five U.S. presidents have attended Yale: William Howard Taft (Class of 1878), Gerald Ford (Law School, 1941), George H.W. Bush (Class of 1948), William Jefferson Clinton (Law School, 1973), and George W. Bush (Class of 1968). Taft also served as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (1921–31). John C. Calhoun (Class of 1804) served as Vice President under two different presidents. Yale graduates have served with distinction in every armed conflict of our country from the Revolution to the Vietnam War; the names of those who died are carved on the white marble walls of Memorial Hall. Nathan Hale (Class of 1773) died in service as America’s first spy. Over 750 Yale men served in the Civil War in both the Union and the Confederate armies. During World War II, the University operated year-round under an accelerated program; nearly 22,000 men and women were trained for service in the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps, while the regular curriculum was carried on for civilian students.

Recent Developments

After World War II, Yale President A. Whitney Griswold (1950–1963) redefined the liberal arts educational mission of Yale and enlivened the university’s architectural appearance by inviting the best modern architects to design its buildings. Under the administration of President Kingman Brewster (1963–1977), Yale became more diverse. Women were admitted to Yale College in 1969, and the first women transfer students received the bachelor of arts degree in 1971. In 1972 the School of Art and Architecture was divided into separate schools. The School of Management was established in 1973.

The university is now New Haven’s largest employer with over 11,000 faculty, professionals, and staff, and a student body of about 12,000. In 1997, Yale appointed the first vice president of New Haven and state affairs in recognition of the importance to Yale of relations with the city and region at this juncture of the university’s history. Through the administrations of Yale presidents A. Bartlett Giamatti, Benno C. Schmidt, Richard C. Levin, and current president Peter Salovey, Yale and the city have continued to work cooperatively in developing mutually beneficial educational, cultural, and economic projects.


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Manuscripts and Archives
Manuscripts and Archives

Yale University Library

P.O. Box 208240

New Haven, CT 06520-8240

(203) 432-1735

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