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A Brief History of GW

In 1819, the Reverend Luther Rice, Obadiah B. Brown, Spencer H. Cone, and Enoch Reynolds (all Baptist ministers) set in motion the reality of a college in the District. These men raised the needed funds to purchase land in the nation's capital, petitioned the Congress for a charter, and began organizing a college.

Silhouette of Luther Rice

On February 9, 1821, President James Monroe signed the Act of Congress that created the College. By design of the Congress, a special provision was included which required that "persons of every religious denomination shall be capable of being elected Trustees; nor shall any person, either as President, Professor, Tutor or pupil, be refused admittance, or denied any of the privileges, immunities, or advantages thereof, for or on account of his sentiments in matters of religion."

Columbian College's first location became known as "College Hill." This 46-1/2 acre tract of land extended north of Boundary Street (now Florida Avenue) between 14th and 15th Streets, and was purchased for $7,000. The College's central building was a large structure for classes and boarding that accommodated 100 students. Three smaller buildings housed professors, the College President, the College Steward, and "philosophical equipment." Occupying this site for over 60 years, the College was a brief walk from the Capitol Building.

Originally, Columbian College was composed of a preparatory school and two departments: a Theological Department (discontinued after two years); and a Classical Department with Professors of General History, Belles Lettres, Rhetoric, Moral Philosophy, Learned Languages, Anatomy and Physiology, Chemistry, Mathematics and Natural Philosophy, and Botany. The first degrees were awarded in 1824, with the first Master of Arts degree following in 1831. By the middle of the 1800s, the College offered the degrees of Bachelor of Arts, Master of Arts and Bachelor of Philosophy.

Growth in the 1800s

Classes began in 1822 with a faculty of three professors and one tutor. Requisites for student admission included an acquaintance with English grammar and arithmetic, a thorough knowledge of geography, and the ability to read and write Latin. The prospective student had to be able to translate, with a high degree of competence, Caesar's Commentaries, the works of Virgil and Sallust, select orations of Cicero, and the New Testament in Greek. Thirty students registered for the first term.

The College graduated its first class of three seniors on December 15, 1824. Considered an important event for the nation's capital, the President of the United States, his cabinet and many members of Congress attended. The entourage was entertained by the Marine Band. The Marquis de Lafayette, general and hero of the American Revolution, was the guest of honor and was officially welcomed after the ceremonies by the Reverend William Staughton, first President of the College.

The concept of a large and urban institution began to evolve early in the College's history. In addition to the Baccalaureate Program, a Preparatory School, established in 1821, continued until 1897. The Medical Department was founded in 1825 and originally located at 10th and E Streets, in the heart of Washington. The next year, the Law Department was founded; although it was discontinued after two years, it reopened in 1865. In the years preceding the American Civil War, approximately 300 students received degrees from Columbian College.

The Civil War split the College as it did the nation. When the conflict began, most of the students left their classrooms to join the Southern forces. The faculty as well was split by their opposing loyalties. Dr. A.Y.P. Garnett, Professor of Anatomy since 1854, departed for the South, where he served as physician to Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. Dr. Robert King Stone remained to become the personal physician to Abraham Lincoln.

Sketch of trees along a road and barracks in 1862

The Corcoran Scientific School was established in 1888, and the School of Comparative Jurisprudence and Diplomacy followed in 1898. By order of the Corporation of the University at the 1892 annual meeting, a School of Graduate Studies was established, offering 30 different fields of graduate study toward secondary degrees.

Students participated in athletic activities since the late 1800's. Football began in 1890, produced several championship teams, and was discontinued in 1967. Track (1904), rifle teams, baseball (1890s), and basketball (1906) were among the original sports at GW. The first basketball team won the newly organized Southern Championship. Over the years competitive sports were established and proud traditions begun.

Other student traditions included the college yearbook and student newspaper. Originally called The Columbiad in 1890, the yearbook became The C in 1904, The Mall in 1905, and finally The Cherry Tree in 1908. In 1902, the idea for a campus newspaper surfaced. The first continuous student newspaper was called The Weekly Columbian. With the University's name change in 1904, the newspaper was renamed The University Hatchet.

For more than a century, fraternities and sororities have been a part of campus life. Many other student organizations, such as religious groups, choral and instrumental music groups, and residence hall associations, have contributed to the student university experience, to the University itself, and to the Washington, DC community.

The George Washington University

In 1904, Columbian University became The George Washington University by an Act of Congress. University President Charles H. Stockton provided guidance, reorganizing the University in 1911 to reduce expenditures and selling property to increase revenue. Through the urging of Dr. Stockton, the Department of Arts and Sciences was moved in 1912 to 2023 G Street.

The early growth of the University at Foggy Bottom was quite exceptional. Buildings, rented for the first year, were purchased by the University. The existing dwellings were remodeled into classrooms. With these efforts and construction of two new buildings, President Stockton laid a strong foundation for GW Presidents Cloyd Heck Marvin (1927-1959), Lloyd H. Elliott (1965-1988) and Stephen Joel Trachtenberg (1988-2007).

The 32 years of Dr. Marvin's presidency represent the longest in the history of the school. By the 1930s, the University was well established in the Foggy Bottom area. The city was growing and the institution had become a true urban university. During this time, another major reorganization took place in the curriculum of the University.

In addition, Dr. Marvin reorganized the administration of the University and with the assistance of the Board of Trustees strengthened its financial structure. Through Dr. Marvin's efforts, the School of Government was established with an endowment from the Southern Jurisdiction of the Scottish Rite, a Masonic organization. In 1950, the College of General Studies was founded to provide courses for special groups on and off campus. Throughout Dr. Cloyd Heck Marvin's tenure, the University had undergone physical change.

In the 1930s, GW served as a center of activity for theoretical physicists and as the backdrop for some of the most important conferences on theoretical physics ever held. The development gave GW a prominent place in scientific history.

Dr. Marvin led the University through the war years. With the outbreak of World War II in 1941, national defense overshadowed events at the University. The construction of Lisner Auditorium brought needed space for student body meetings and performances, including student drama club Cue and Curtain, the glee club, and the Debate Club. In 1943, the not yet dedicated auditorium was chosen for the 122nd annual commencement. That same year, team captain Joe Gallagher led the Colonials to the Southern Conference Basketball championship. With the conclusion of the 1943 season, varsity sports would not be resumed until the conclusion of the war.

Men standing at a table with women sitting

GW contributed greatly to the war effort. By the end of the conflict, the University had sent some 7,000 students off to war, contracted with the U.S. government to develop rockets for use by the Army and Navy, and developed training courses for over 12,000 students.

Dr. Lloyd Hartman Elliott became University President during the turbulent years of the Vietnam Era and student protests. By the end of his tenure, Dr. Elliott had brought to the University financial stability and continued growth through academic development and his many building programs.

As Dr. Elliott considered libraries to be the backbone of any campus, his proudest achievement was the building of the three libraries currently on campus: Melvin Gelman Library, Jacob Burns Law Library, and Paul Himmelfarb Health Sciences Library. In addition, Dr. Elliott oversaw the construction and opening of the Academic Center, Funger Hall, The Charles E. Smith Center for Physical Education and Athletics, and the Cloyd Heck Marvin Student Center.

One Central Location

1973 was a landmark year for the University. GW's medical training program was moved from 13th and H Streets to the Walter G. Ross Hall. With the relocation of the School of Medicine and Health Sciences, the University was located in one central area for the first time.

Dr. Elliott began the Educational Opportunity Program and created the new faculty rank of "University Professor." He also increased the number of endowed professorships from three to 20 and greatly increased the university's endowment.

On August 1, 1988, Stephen Joel Trachtenberg became the 15th President of The George Washington University. In his convocation address at his installation, President Trachtenberg recognized the many accomplishments of the University and those who preceded him, and alluded to GW's future.

In 1989, President Trachtenberg created the Office of Campus Life and made the commitment to offer programs and services "to enhance the personal, professional, social and cultural development of the University community." Other accomplishments include the remodeling of Lisner Auditorium and the campus bookstore, new seating for the Smith Center, the development of Francis Field for GW Athletics, and the creation of a 24-hour reading room within Gelman Library.

President Trachtenberg affirmed his commitment to the importance of teaching at the University with the establishment of the University Teaching Center. He also created the 21st Century Scholars program, allowing high school students within the District of Columbia to attend the University and participate in aspects of campus life. A significant project at GW was inaugurated on June 22, 1990, with the groundbreaking of the first building of GW's Northern Virginia Campus, located east of Leesburg, VA. The facility was completed in 1991. Also, in 1996, the first residence hall to be constructed since Strong Hall in 1939 (all others were purchased) was begun.

Between August 28, 1995, and May 19, 1996, the University celebrated its 175th Anniversary. Symposia, conferences, exhibitions and performances were held to commemorate this special occasion. On February 9th, 1996, Charter Day/ Homecoming weekend, the University held a special convocation and a birthday gala at historic Union Station. In 1996, a new photographic history of the University entitled From Strength to Strength was published.

Additions and Changes

In its 176th year new gates, marking the entrance to the Gelman Yard on both 21st and 22nd Streets, NW, were constructed, as was a new park on F Street. A new residence hall at 2350 H Street was opened. The academic resources of the University were built up as well, as a major Judaica Collection was given to Gelman Library by the Kiev family. In addition, the reputation of our academic institution grew as noted by GW's first-ever ranking in the "Top 50 Colleges and Universities" by U.S. News and World Report.

In 1996 Mount Vernon College announced plans to affiliate the 121-year-old women's college with The George Washington University. By the fall of 1998, the first class of George Washington freshmen women began classes on the Mount Vernon campus as part of the new The George Washington University at Mount Vernon College. In May 1999 the last Mount Vernon College class graduated; and on June 30 the campus officially became The George Washington University at Mount Vernon College, offering special living, learning and leadership programs for women of the George Washington University.

President Trachtenberg's tenure added many new facilities to the University, increased academic excellence, and greatly increased the endowment of the University. He retired as GW President on July 31, 2007.

Dr. Steven Knapp became the 16th President of The George Washington University on August 1, 2007. In June 2016, Dr. Knapp announced that he would resign and GW would have a new president in 2017. Thomas J. LeBlanc was unanimously elected by The Board of Trustees of the George Washington University as the university's 17th President on January 6, 2017. Dr. LeBlanc began his service at the George Washington University on August 1, 2017.

President LeBlanc retired in December 2021. In January 2022, Mark S. Wrighton became George Washington University’s eighteenth president.