A gathering of alumni in 1907




Old College, the first building, in 1875

































Gathered by the old oak tree, a campus gathering spot predating the Rock

North-Western Female College opened in 1855. It flourished initially but ultimately was absorbed into the University in 1873.



























Rarely these days does the topic of Northwestern's true essence or character work its way into common conversation, but there was a time when it did and even made the campus newspaper. In 1890, for example, the (not-yet-daily) Northwestern declared in an editorial that this university could congratulate itself for blazing new trails in higher education.

Northwestern was now a fine blend of an English-type liberal arts college and the German "research university," the editors wrote. "There are unmistakable indications that we are at the beginning of a new era in the history of Northwestern university. The instructors in various departments are doing far more literary work than ever before. The scientific world is beginning to recognize us as a factor in the diffusion of solid learning." With professional schools and graduate departments growing in size and stature, it was judged, Northwestern was one of a few American institutions "which deserve the appellation, university."

Many other university issues went under the campus microscope in those felicitous times, amply covered by the Northwestern. Should the University create a school of engineering? "Chicago will be the hub of the manufacturing universe," the Northwestern wrote. "Here is our opportunity; a chance to wheel into pace with the times."

There was the question of social science, long disparaged by classical scholars as meretricious. And then, not at all trivial, was the subject of student kissing, a practice apparently as rampant at the turn of the century as it is now and all too public in the view of many who found it unhealthful and embarrassing.

Most of these burning issues have been long resolved. Yet these and other stories from Northwestern history demonstrate something that was true then and remains a part of the Northwestern character today. It's the belief that administrators, professors and even students can and should mold the University according to their image of it.

The founders had such a faith from the beginning. They resolved that Northwestern would be one of the principal universities of the American Northwest -- thus the name -- and it became so. As the years passed there was hardly ever a time when the University was not striving to prove itself, improve itself and increase its stature among its peers.

It is a characteristic that President Henry Bienen noted in his inaugural remarks in 1995. Among Northwestern's strengths, he noted, were "the Midwestern values of hard work and straightforwardness" and "a striving for excellence." He was correct in observing that a sturdy ambition has driven the University for all of its 150 years.

Northwestern's Pioneer Roots

Northwestern was conceived in 1850 by nine serious and devout individuals who met in a modest law office above a hardware store in Chicago. There they declared that in "the interests of sanctified learning" they would undertake "the immediate establishment of a university in the Northwest, under the patronage of the Methodist Episcopal Church." Without delay these men drafted Northwestern's charter, sent it to the Illinois Legislature for enactment in January 1851, and then put their work and conspicuous faith to the test.

The founders included John Evans, a physician whose earlier accomplishments included the creation of Indiana's first insane asylum. Early in his career Evans also experienced an intense religious awakening through his friendship with the fiery Methodist bishop Matthew Simpson -- a founder of what would become DePauw University. Evans considered joining the ministry, but Simpson told the doctor that his talents would be more beneficially used in a growing outpost on Lake Michigan with an appalling need for men and women of a moral disposition. Thus Evans moved to Chicago where he became, in equal parts, an influential Methodist lay leader, practicing physician and a hugely successful investor in real estate. It was a blend of callings that made him a very good choice as first president of the Northwestern Board of Trustees.

Among the other founders was New York-born Grant Goodrich, who migrated by wagon to Illinois, where he practiced law. Like his acquaintance Abraham Lincoln, Goodrich was a passionate man when it came to righteous causes. He had unalterable antislavery convictions, and he involved himself in a variety of other crusades, also with zest -- including the temperance movement.

Co-founder Orrington Lunt was later regarded as the grand old gentleman of the first Board of Trustees. Lunt was a wealthy grain trader who saw one speculation too many go bad, and by the time he was involved in founding Northwestern he had left the stresses and strains of commodities trading for a life devoted principally to philanthropy. During Lunt's long and productive career he helped create an orphanage in Chicago, funded a church for African American Methodists and toward the end of his life was the major benefactor of Northwestern's first library, now Lunt Hall.

These three, joined by six other founders (three were Methodist clergy) represented an ambitious -- one could say relentless -- group. Before most knew what a university of any kind involved, they pushed on confidently and intelligently.

Within a year, Evans arranged for the purchase of a city block in what is today the Loop. This land, at LaSalle and Jackson Streets, never became the campus that Evans imagined that it might. It was decided instead to build Northwestern outside the city, where there was room to grow. (The decision was motivated in part by the suspicion that the downtown Chicago property had neighbors of unsavory character.)

Still, Evans believed that the Chicago landholding was an excellent investment, and it turned out to be just that, providing hefty rental income for more than a century until 1996, when it was sold to longtime tenant Continental Bank (now part of the Bank of America).

By 1853, however, the University was still without a campus or students when trustee Lunt began exploring sites north of Chicago. According to Northwestern lore, Lunt discovered 370 acres on Lake Michigan, where the shore changed from grassy marsh to bluffs and hardwoods.

"It continued in my dreams," Lunt later remembered, "and I could not rid myself of the fairy visions constantly presenting themselves in fanciful beauties -- of the gentle waving lake -- its pebbly shore -- the beautiful oak openings and bluffs beyond." Lunt brought fellow trustees to the place a few days later, and they were exultant. "We were delighted. ... We had found the place."

After the board members arranged to buy the land, they set part aside for the campus and part to survey and rent out to raise necessary funds. The purchase was obviously a good bet because the land was located directly on a proposed rail line between Chicago and Milwaukee that was in fact ultimately built. Along with the oak groves and the lakeshore, the train made the town that would be Evanston attractive to the growing numbers of commuters in the area. Before long the Rev. Philo Judson, Northwestern's treasurer and agent, had the town's initial sections platted. Within a year lots were rented out, streets graded, and Evanston's first homes were built.

By fall 1855 the trustees also put up Northwestern's first building, a three-story, balloon-frame structure in the popular Italianate style. By then the first few students had enrolled, and Northwestern celebrated its inaugural convocation. Trustees were present. Old-timers from the nearby "Big Woods" showed up out of curiosity. Sadly absent was the University's first president, Clark T. Hinman, who had died more than a year before, partially from the strains of roving the countryside on horseback to recruit students and sell perpetual scholarships (see story). Because of Hinman's death, school opened with just two professors, mathematician Henry Noyes and classicist William Godman.

Yet despite these raw beginnings, the trustees, faculty and a succession of presidents carved a university little by little out of the relative wilderness. In 1859 they established a preparatory school to build enrollment for the college. By the 1860s they began affiliating with professional schools and becoming a proper university. Over time Northwestern also raised admissions standards, attracted a substantial faculty and raised funds for new buildings. By the turn of the century the University was the third largest in the nation, after Harvard and Michigan, but it did not rest on its laurels.

Split Personality

Another key element of Northwestern's history and character is an ingrained but compassionate conservatism. This philosophy had religious roots -- the Methodists were the Great Awakening revivalists of this period -- and that meant that drinking, gambling and skipping chapel were on the long list of transgressions on the University campus.

In 1853 Grant Goodrich prevailed upon the widow of former Chicago mayor Augustus Garrett to subsidize a new religious seminary in Evanston. Then in 1855 Goodrich drafted a two-part amendment to the University's state charter and engineered its passage by the Illinois legislature. The first portion prohibited the manufacture or sale of alcohol within a four-mile radius of the campus. The second mandated that the University be forever free from local taxation. Utopia was not too strong a word to describe the Methodist vision of Evanston; for years some ironically referred to it as "Heavenston," although the upright founders of the University were certainly not among them.

Yet, like many institutions of longevity, Northwestern harbored a prominent alter ego as well. What may be less obvious to modern observers of Old Methodism is its tradition of tolerance and open-mindedness. In unguarded moments the faculty and administration could reveal a liberal streak that was as authentic as it was surprising.

For one thing, Northwestern and its Methodists never neglected the realities of the temporal world. The church encouraged commerce and regarded the accumulation of material wealth in positive terms. The benefit of a good general education was another, not unrelated, Methodist preoccupation. And more worldly still were scientific studies. At least one biology teacher in the first years engaged in the experimental fermentation of alcoholic liquors, a dangerous precedent, of course, but one that delighted students and others invited to the professor's home.

On the issue of coeducation, Northwestern was curiously progressive as well, enrolling women on an equal (or nearly equal) basis with men at a time when most of the old schools of the East were segregated by gender. The first woman enrolled in the University in 1869. Reasons for Northwestern's advanced position vis-a-vis women included the alliance between temperance leaders (many of them Methodists) and feminists in the cultural politics of the day. There was also the Rev. Erastus O. Haven, who made coeducation a condition for accepting the presidency, also in 1869.

In addition, having as forceful a personality on campus as Frances Willard, the first dean of the women's college, provided an additional impetus toward coeducation. Willard, an inspirational orator and later the founder and president of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, became one of America's most esteemed and powerful women.

In another example of surprising latitude, the theories of Charles Darwin were taught without impediment in Northwestern classrooms. Science teacher Oliver Marcy, a conservative on most issues (he looked askance at coeducation), explained scientific Darwinism in no less imposing a forum than the Northwestern Christian Advocate, the official Methodist newspaper of the region. "It is not part of our purpose, here, to discuss the question 'How God brings new forms into being,'" he wrote, "but to show that there is a God in nature...." Evolution was obvious, according to Marcy, but evolution was no step-by-step process, and great evolutionary leaps were unexplained except as the work of God.

Recognizing that the world was changing, the trustees hired Henry Wade Rogers in 1890 as the first nonminister to be president. Rogers came from the University of Michigan with political views that reflected the progressive movement of the time. In his inaugural address he stressed that he would be guided in his presidency by "wise conservatism" but would "not hesitate to make such changes in the established order of things as the demands of the progress of the age shall show to be wise and good."

His 10-year administration was noted for many things -- progress in integrating the professional schools as full participants in Northwestern, improved curricula throughout the University and a debate on the role of athletics in college.

Northwestern grew in reputation during this time, but these advances did not thwart a conservative backlash in 1900 when Rogers joined the national political debate on America's occupation of the Philippines after the Spanish-American War. Rogers condemned the occupation, putting him in opposition to Republican dogma. Because Northwestern's board was dominated by wealthy Republicans, Rogers found it necessary to resign. His administration is still regarded as a pivotal period in the University's history.

University by Federation

Before Rogers' arrival, Northwestern consisted of a multiplicity of semiautonomous schools. This asset (or defect, depending upon viewpoint), harks back to the earliest years when the University grew in the same manner that Chicago itself grew, quickly, tirelessly and largely by merger and acquisition.

Affiliations began in 1870 with the Chicago Medical College; the University contributed $15,000 for the college's new building, receiving little more in exchange than the right to add "Northwestern University" to its medical diplomas. And in 1873 the University formed Union College of Law as a joint venture with the former University of Chicago.

The School of Oratory, which became the School of Speech in 1921, had its origins in individual classes first offered in 1878 as a program to hone the rhetorical skills of divinity students at the Garrett Biblical Insitute. Northwestern also affiliated with the Illinois College of Pharmacy (1886) and the University College of Dental and Oral Surgery (1887).

Acquisition was still on the table in the 1930s when Northwestern considered making Armour Institute (now the Illinois Institute of Technology) the engineering school of the University. The plan fell through, and in 1942 Northwestern opened the Technological Institute instead. In 1933 Northwestern came within a hair's breadth of merging with the University of Chicago, creating what everyone in favor of the plan was convinced would be the greatest institution of higher education in the world.

Cementing Ties with Chicago

While many, perhaps most, aspects of Northwestern's history have been evolutionary, others were marked by important turning points that set the University in new and ultimately successful directions. In 1921 Northwestern purchased approximately nine acres on Chicago's Near North Side for $1.5 million and began building a new campus designed to house the School of Law, the Medical School and other professional schools, all of which had been housed in antiquated quarters elsewhere in the city.

The decision to build a major new campus was controversial at the time. "Having the school in the heart of town [Chicago] is harmful, as a majority of the students are distracted from their studies by attending theaters, saloons, etc.," wrote Evanstonian C.J. Wendland in a letter to the Evanston Daily News.

The University went ahead just the same, in part in the belief that the new campus would "make a positive contribution to the Architecture of the City of Chicago," as promised by new President Walter Dill Scott (WCAS1895).

The rhetoric held true, and from the beginning the Chicago campus wed Northwestern to the city. The Chicago campus attracted such institutions as the distinguished Passavant Hospital in 1925. The School of Commerce took up residence as well, the better to invite working business executives to lecture on practical subjects. University College was organized in 1933, the same year as the Chicago Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory. And in 1940 Wesley Memorial Hospital moved to the campus, giving reality to early visions of a true medical center. Passavant and Wesley merged in the early 1970s to form Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

A Vision for the Future

Grandness of vision and many other character traits developed over the decades continued to guide the expansion of Northwestern, and never more than in the boom years after World War II. Like most Northwestern presidents, J. Roscoe Miller (M29), who came to the position in 1949, managed the University with Northwestern's characteristic blend of conservatism and vision. In 1962 Miller implemented an old plan first suggested by Scott to extend the main campus east into the lake. The 74-acre lakefill triggered a surge of building growth that was not so incidentally accompanied by thorough revamping of a throng of academic departments that would move there (see feature).

Today Northwestern is consistently ranked among America's great universities at both the undergraduate and the graduate levels. Locally the University maintains an ongoing and mutually beneficial relationship with the Chicago area, having provided it with generations of lawyers, musicians, physicians, actors, business leaders and other major contributors to the region's success. Steady advances in the sciences, along with the constant stream of insights inherent in the humanities and social sciences, make Northwestern a resource of international dimensions as well.

Amid such success, it is easy to forget the University's modest origins. History demonstrates that Northwestern's desire to excel -- its need to make an impact on society -- goes back 150 years. These same influences underlie recent triumphs -- the phenomenal rise of the Kellogg Graduate School of Management, the central role played by athletics in the life of the campus and certainly the astounding success of the capital campaign now in progress.

Of course, what is important to this or any university is not its past but its future. Of this future, no one knows if the interdisciplinary research of the Institute for Neuroscience will make the epic discoveries hoped for to conquer Alzheimer's disease. Nor can anyone say if the lifesaving work of the journalism and law schools will lead to America's elimination of wrongful murder convictions.

One can say, however, that the achievements of the 20th and 21st centuries would certainly dazzle the nine founders of Northwestern University. Still, Northwestern's modern achievements echo the spirit of those stony-faced Methodists. They were convinced that learning is cumulative, that Northwestern's fortunes were and are tied to the fortunes of the outside community and, perhaps most of all, that all knowledge is connected. They were tireless in picking up and assembling the many strands of knowledge at their disposal. Their legacy is the passion and intensity with which today's teachers and students and researchers understand and do the same.

Jay Pridmore, a writer who lives in Chicago, is the author of Northwestern University: Celebrating 150 Years (Northwestern University Press, 2000), the official Sesquicentennial history of the University. To purchase the book, either log on to the Web site, call 1-800-621-2736 or fax your order to 1-773-660-2235.