Yale University Celebrates 300 Years of Academic History

By D'Eugenio, Rosalind | History Today, October 2001 | Go to article overview

Yale University Celebrates 300 Years of Academic History


D'Eugenio, Rosalind, History Today


THE HISTORY OF YALE UNIVERSITY holds that, in 1701, a handful of Congregational ministers from Connecticut brought together forty books from their own libraries, placed them on a table, and pronounced, `I give these books for the founding of a College in this Colony'. While that tale has been alternately accepted and disputed, it is certain that in October 1701, the Connecticut Colony General Assembly met in New Haven and granted a charter for The Collegiate School, which was housed in the shoreline town of Old Saybrook before finding permanent residence in New Haven.

It was in 1718, with the donations of Elihu Yale, a British East India merchant of Wrexham, Wales, that the college completed its first building. Honouring Yale's generous gift of nine bales of goods (worth 569 pounds and 12 shillings), 417 books, and a portrait and arms of George I, the school was renamed Yale College.

Yale College began a succession of alumni who would go on to make significant contributions to the worlds of law, politics, science, medicine and the arts. Some early graduates include the American revolutionary, Nathan Hale, (1773); David Bushnell, (1775), the inventor of the `Turtle', the precursor to the submarine; and Eli Whitney, (1792), who established a gun factory which was the first in the world to utilise a system of interchangeable parts. Also among these graduates were four signers of the Declaration of Independence -- Lyman Hall, Philip Livingston, Lewis Morris, and Oliver Wolcott.

By the 1800s the University had added a medical school and The Trumbull Gallery, the first art museum in Connecticut and the first university museum in America. In 1869, Yale also established the first fine arts school in America and opened its doors to female students. Yale's now famous student-run newspaper, The Yale Daily News, was also founded. And, in 1887, the college was renamed Yale University.

Notable alumni during this generation included Samuel Morse (1810), inventor of the telegraph and Morse Code; Lee DeForest (1896), inventor of the Audion vacuum tube which made possible radio broadcasting; and writer James Fenimore Cooper (1806). In 1854, Yung Wing, the first Chinese student to receive a degree in the Western Hemisphere, graduated from Yale College, beginning a long and successful relationship between Yale and China. In 1876, Yale became the first US university to award a PhD degree to an African-American, when Edward Bouchet graduated.

During the nineteenth century, the university continued what is now a crucial relationship with its home of New Haven. It was during this century that Yale and New Haven were instrumental in helping secure the freedom of the Amistad Captives who, in an endeavour to escape, seized control of their slave ship. Yale's relationship with New Haven has also aided the city in becoming a centre for the arts with the establishment in 1925, of the Yale Drama School. George Pierce Baker founded the School, and his innovative techniques in theatre helped produce such thespians as Meryl Streep, Edward Norton, Signourney Weaver, Angela Bassett, David Hyde Pierce, director Alan Pakula, and Austin Pendleton. Later, the Yale Repertory Theatre was established, beginning a tradition in which student and alumni productions would often move onto the London and New York stage.

Tremendous growth of both the campus and the curriculum of the ivy-league institution welcomed the twentieth century. In 1914, Yale completed the Yale Bowl, the largest amphitheatre to be constructed since the Roman Colosseum. …

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