|A BRIEF HISTORY
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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, and current president Richard C. Levin, Yale and
the city have continued to work cooperatively in developing mutually
beneficial educational, cultural, and economic projects.
By Judith Schiff, Chief Research Archivist, Manuscripts and Archives