Today in History – September 14

On September 14, 1638, John Harvard, a 31-year-old clergyman from Charlestown, Massachusetts died, leaving his library and half of his estate to a local college. The young minister’s bequest allowed the college to firmly establish itself. In honor of its first benefactor, the school adopted the name Harvard College.

Harvard University #2, Cambridge, Mass. Haines Photo Co., c 1910. Panoramic Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division

Founded by the General Court of Massachusetts in 1636, Harvard External is America’s oldest institution of higher learning. From a college of nine students and one instructor, it has grown into a world-renowned university with over 18,000 degree candidates and 2,000 faculty members, including numerous Nobel laureates. Situated a few miles west of Boston on the Charles River in Cambridge, Harvard’s main campus is one of the country’s most scenic. With an endowment of over $40 billion(2019), the university is the world’s wealthiest.

[Card Catalog Catalog in Widener Library at Harvard, Cambridge, Massachusetts]. c1915. Prints & Photographs Division

Eight U.S. presidents — John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Rutherford B. Hayes, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama — were educated at Harvard, as were leaders in many fields. The school’s notable alumni include First Lady Michelle Obama, Helen Keller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, W.E.B. Du Bois, Hanna H. Gray, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., T.S. Eliot, Ralph Bunche, David Rockefeller, I.M. Pei, Robert Coles, Patricia Schroeder, Al Gore, Jr., and Yo-Yo Ma.

 Astronomy 170, Harvard University: course materials. Sagan, Carl, 1965. Finding Our Place in the Cosmos: From Galileo to Sagan and Beyond. Manuscript Division

Harvard based its original curriculum on the classics taught in European universities and on the Puritanism preached in the American colonies. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the college diversified, turning away from Puritanism towards intellectual independence. Under the leadership of president Charles W. Eliot, from 1869-1909, Harvard revitalized its law and medical schools, established schools of business, dental medicine, and arts and sciences, and transformed itself into a major modern university.

Harvard 0 – Yale 0, November 25, 1911. Notman Photo Co., November 25,1911. Panoramic Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division

Also significant in Harvard’s transformation was the 1879 opening of its “sister” school, Radcliffe College, which made Harvard’s resources available to women. Today, Harvard continues its tradition of academic excellence as a coeducational university with an undergraduate college, nine graduate schools, and some 200 allied institutions including laboratories, libraries, and museums.