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1600s: Our early origins

The John Harvard statue

1607: John Harvard, the College’s future namesake and first benefactor, was baptized at St. Saviour’s Church (now Southwark Cathedral), London.

1635: John Harvard received his M.A. from Cambridge University, England.

1636: First College in American colonies founded. The “Great and General Court of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England” approves £400 for the establishment of “a schoale or colledge” later to be called “Harvard.”

1637: The Great and General Court orders the “colledge” established one year earlier to be located at Newetowne (renamed “Cambrige” in 1638).

1637 (or early 1638)
An old map of cambridge

“College Yard” purchased

The Overseers purchased the College’s first piece of real estate: a house and an acre of land from Goodman Peyntree. Located on the southern edge of “Cow-yard Row” and soon distinguished as the “College Yard,” this tract became the nucleus of present-day Harvard Yard and remains at the southern end of the Old Yard (the area west of Thayer, University, and Weld halls).

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

1600s (continued)

1638: John Harvard wills his library (400 books) and half his estate to the College.

1639: In recognition of John Harvard’s bequest, the Great and General Court orders “that the colledge agreed upon formerly to bee built at Cambridg shalbee called Harvard Colledge.”

1640: Reverend Henry Dunster is appointed first president of Harvard.

1642: First Harvard Commencement with nine graduates.

1649: The Town of Cambridge and President Henry Dunster give Harvard the “College Farm” at Billerica, Mass., which paid annual rent to the College until the farm was sold in 1775.

the Harvard Charter

Harvard granted Charter

Drafted by Henry Dunster, the Charter of 1650 called for the Harvard Corporation to consist of seven individuals: the President, five Fellows, and a Treasurer. The Charter named the Corporation as the “President and Fellowes of Harvard College” and transferred to them, in “perpetual succession,” the duties of managing the College.

The first changes to the Corporation’s structure since 1650 were implemented in 2010. These include an expansion of the number of Fellows, the establishment of terms of service for Fellows, and the creation of standing committees.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

1600s (continued)

1653: John Sassamon, a Massachusett Indian, became the first known Native American to study at Harvard (probably for a term or so). A disciple of Indian Bible translator John Eliot, Sassamon later became a scribe and interpreter to Wampanoag Chief Metacom (a.k.a. Metacomet, Pometacom, King Philip). In 1675, Sassamon was murdered as an English informant, touching off King Philip’s War, New England’s most devastating conflict between Natives and newcomers.

1692: Increase Mather awarded Harvard’s first Doctor of Divinity degree.

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1700s: Harvard and the American Revolution

A statue of John Adams in Annenberg Hall

John Adams graduates

John Adams, future U.S. president, graduates. Before 1773, the graduates of Harvard were arranged in a hierarchy not of merit but “according to the dignity of birth, or to the rank of [their] parents.” By this rather undemocratic standard, Adams graduated 14th in a class of 24.

Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

1700s (continued)

1764: Original Harvard Hall burns, destroying some 5,000 volumes and all but one of John Harvard’s books.

1775: Continental soldiers are quartered in Harvard buildings.

1776: Eight Harvard alumni sign the Declaration of Independence.

1780: The Massachusetts Constitution went into effect and officially recognized Harvard as a university. The first medical instruction given to Harvard students in 1781 and the founding of the Medical School in 1782 made it a university in fact as well as name.

1781: Oldest continuous chapter of Phi Beta Kappa formed at Harvard.

1782: Twenty-nine-year-old John Warren was appointed Professor of Anatomy and Surgery at the Medical School. During the previous year while head of the army hospital in Boston, he had given Harvard students their first formal medical instruction. Benjamin Waterhouse was named to a second Medical School professorship, in the “Theory and Practice of Physic.”

1783: With high ceremony, Harvard Medical School officially opened as the “Medical Institution of Harvard University.” Its first home was the ever-versatile Holden Chapel.

1787: John Quincy Adams, future U.S. president, graduates.

1791: A writer in the Boston press accused Harvard of poisoning students’ minds with Edward Gibbon’s monumental “History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” (1776-88). President Joseph Willard replied that far from even considering Gibbon, the College used a text by French historian Abbé Millot. Nathaniel Ames, who left Harvard around 1812, recalled Millot’s as “the most utterly worthless and contemptible work of that kind or any other extant.”

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1800s: A century of growth


1810: John Thornton Kirkland begins 18-year presidency.

1815: University Hall is completed.

1816: The Divinity School is established.

1817: Harvard Law School is established.

1829: Josiah Quincy begins his 16-year presidency.

1832: Dane Hall, the Law School’s first new building, was formally dedicated in Harvard Yard and served for more than half a century thereafter.

1836: Harvard Bicentennial.

1836: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow appointed professor.

1837: Ralph Waldo Emerson ’21 delivers Phi Beta Kappa oration.

A sketch of the moon

Harvard Observatory is founded

Pictured: One of the Plate Stacks at the Harvard College Observatory.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

1800s (continued)

1845: Rutherford B. Hayes, future U.S. president, graduates from the Law School.

1846: John Collins Warren, Medical School professor, conducts first public demonstration of ether as surgical anesthetic.

1849: Dr. George Parkman disappeared at the Medical School in one of the most famous murder cases in Harvard history. Earlier, Parkman had lent money to colleague Dr. John White Webster. To secure the loan, Webster gave Parkman a mortgage on his personal property, including a valuable collection of minerals. When Parkman learned that Webster had backed another loan with the same collection, he began relentlessly pursuing Webster to collect the debt. A week after the disappearance, a suspicious janitor broke through a brick vault below Webster’s lab and found human body parts, which the authorities soon discovered all around the lab. Found guilty of first-degree murder, Webster belatedly confessed and appealed for clemency, but was hanged on Aug. 30, 1850. Parkman’s widow led a fund drive to support Webster’s wife and children.

1852: Harvard wins first intercollegiate sports event, a boat race against Yale on Lake Winnipesaukee.

A drawing of Henry David Thoreau with a beard

Henry David Thoreau ’37 publishes Walden

Pictured: Daniel Ricketson’s portrait of Henry David Thoreau featured in a Houghton Library exhibition.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

1800s (continued)

1855: Holworthy Hall gets first gas lights in the Yard.

1862: The Overseers confirmed the Rev. Thomas Hill, Class of 1843, as Harvard’s 20th President. His brief tenure brought higher admissions standards, a series of public “University Lectures” (est. 1863) by distinguished Harvard and non-Harvard scholars that paved the way for the “Graduate School of Arts and Sciences” and University Extension, and progress toward a system of elective courses. Hill also conducted nationwide searches for new faculty appointees.

1865: Election of Overseers placed in the hands of alumni, severing legal ties with the Commonwealth.

1867: The Harvard Dental School made its first appointments: Daniel Harwood, professor of dental pathology and therapeutics; and Nathan Cooley Keep, professor of mechanical dentistry.

1869: At the meetinghouse of First Church, Unitarian, Charles William Eliot was formally installed as Harvard’s 21st President. From the outset, Eliot’s 105-minute address delineated his broad educational purposes: “The endless controversies whether language, philosophy, mathematics, or science supplies the best mental training, whether general education should be chiefly literary or chiefly scientific, have no practical lesson for us to-day. This University recognizes no real antagonism between literature and science, and consents to no such narrow alternatives as mathematics or classics, science or metaphysics. We would have them all, and at their best.”

1870: The Rev. Phillips Brooks laid the cornerstone of Memorial Hall.

1872: Graduate School of Arts and Sciences is founded.

1872: Arnold Arboretum is established.

1873: Charles Sprague Sargent officially began a 54-year term as first director of the Arnold Arboretum. Sargent soon enlisted the aid of pioneering landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted – then busy designing the Boston park system – to help him lay out the grounds. “Olmsted immediately grasped the idea that an arboretum where the public could see varied plantations of rare and exotic trees and shrubs skilfully [sic] selected, artistically arranged, and grown under scientific oversight, would not only be an appropriate feature in the park system [now known as Boston’s “Emerald Necklace”] but might well become its culminating attraction,” Benjamin Lincoln Robinson, the Asa Gray Professor of Systematic Botany, wrote in the late 1920s. Nonetheless, the Arboretum proved a hard sell, Robinson noted. “Neither the City [of Boston] nor the Harvard Corporation welcomed the idea. The press was indifferent, and the public apathetic. Nine years of persistent effort were required before it was possible to draft a plan of procedure acceptable both to the City and to the University and to secure its approval by the General Court of Massachusetts.”

1874: Department of Fine Arts is established.

A poster of a football with Harvard Yale written on it

The Harvard-Yale football game

New Haven, Conn., hosted the first Harvard-Yale football game, which Harvard won, to the delight of some 150 student boosters from Cambridge.

1800s (continued)

1879: The Harvard Annex, later known as Radcliffe College, opens with 27 female students.

1880: Theodore Roosevelt makes Phi Beta Kappa.

1886: 250th anniversary celebrated with more than 2,500 alumni and friends with President Grover Cleveland in attendance.

1890: Land given by Major Henry Lee Higginson ’55 dedicated as Soldiers Field, honoring alumni who died in the Civil War.

1894: Radcliffe College is incorporated.

1896: Fogg Art Museum opens.

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1900s: A century of progress

A plaque that says that FDR lived in the room

1901: First course offered in landscape architecture and city planning.

1903: Franklin D. Roosevelt elected president of the Harvard Crimson.

1903: Country’s first concrete football stadium is built.

1904: FDR graduates.

1908: With 59 students, the Graduate School of Business Administration formally opened as a Graduate Department of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Through this initial connection to established departments, President Eliot and Dean Edwin Francis Gay hoped to get the newcomer off to a well-supported start. Other U.S. universities began offering business training as early as 1886, but the course of study was overwhelmingly undergraduate. In seeking to establish business as a profession, Harvard Business School became the country’s first business program limited to college graduates. By the end of the first academic year, the School had 80 students from 14 colleges and 12 states.

1909: Abbott Lawrence Lowell begins his 24-year presidency.

1910: President Lowell establishes Commission on Extension Courses, now the Harvard Extension School.

1910: Theodore Roosevelt, Class of 1880, served as the 34th president of the Harvard Alumni Association (est. 1840).

1913: School of Public Health is established.

1913: Harvard University Press is established.

1914: Professor Theodore William Richards wins Nobel Prize in Chemistry for determination of atomic weights; he is the first of 50 Harvard Nobel laureates.

1914: Henry Cabot Lodge, Class of 1871, served as the 38th president of the Harvard Alumni Association (est. 1840).

Widener Library

Widener Library opens

Pictured: Widener Library 105 years later.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

1900s (continued)

1920: The College Library contained about 1,127,500 volumes.

1920: The Business School issued Marketing Problems, its first case book, developed by Marketing Professor Melvin Thomas Copeland.

1920: Graduate School of Education is established.

1924: The Harvard-Boston (Egyptian) Expedition began excavation of the royal cemetery of King Cheops (Khufu) near the Great Pyramid and soon identified the tombs of Prince Kawa’ab (Cheops’s eldest son), four other princes, Princess Meresankh II, and two pyramid priests.

1926: Samuel Eliot Morison is appointed official historian for Tercentenary.

1928: First “iron lung” is devised by two doctors, Philip Drinker and Louis Agassiz Shaw, Jr., at the School of Public Health.

1930: The House Plan is established with the opening of Dunster House and Lowell House.

1933: James Bryant Conant begins his 20-year presidency.

1936: Harvard’s Tercentenary Celebration with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in attendance.

1936: Graduate School of Design is established.

1936: Graduate School of Public Administration is established.


Walter Gropius becomes head of architecture at Graduate School of Design

Pictured: Portrait of Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius with Joan Miro mural at Harvard’s Graduate Center.

© President and Fellows of Harvard College

1900s (continued)

1940: John F. Kennedy graduates.

1943: Two hundred Army Quartermaster officers arrived at the Business School for a three-month intensive course in business methods. They formed a new unit of lieutenants and captains known as the Army Supply Officers’ Training School, a counterpart to the Navy Supply Corps School.

1943: The Harvard Alumni Bulletin tally of Harvard men in active military service equaled “the mythical 10,000 men of Harvard.” Seventy-eight Harvard men had been killed in the line of duty, 20 were missing in action, and another 20 were prisoners of war.

The giant, old computer on display in the Science Center

IBM Mark I computer begins operation at Harvard

Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

1900s (continued)

1945: Publication of President Conant’s “General Education in a Free Society”; its recommendation will have wide influence.

1945: At the Kaiser Shipyard in Richmond, Calif., the 10,800-ton SS Harvard Victory was launched as the first of a new series of U.S. Maritime Commission ships named after U.S. educational institutions. The Harvard Corporation later voted to give the ship a library of about 140 volumes selected by the American Merchant Marine Library Association. A simple plaque acknowledged the University’s gift.

1947: General George C. Marshall receives honorary degree: announces “Marshall Plan” at commencement.

1953: Nathan M. Pusey begins his 18-year presidency.

Helen Keller holding her dog

Helen Keller is the first woman to receive a Harvard honorary degree

1900s (continued)

1956: Pusey announces major fund drive, the Program for Harvard College.

1956: Memorial Hall tower burns down.

1959: Fidel Castro is guest of Law School Forum.

1960: Mary I. Bunting establishes Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study.

1960: Loeb Drama Center opens.

1963: Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, designed by Le Corbusier, opens.

1968: Kennedy School of Government begins its Public Policy Program.

1969: Harvard Community Health plan begins serving patients.

1969: Students strike and take over University Hall.

1970: Helen H. Gilbert elected first woman member of the Board of Overseers.

1971: Derek C. Bok begins his 20-year presidency.

1975: George W. Bush, future U.S. president, graduates from Business School.

1975: Equal admissions policy for male and female undergraduates is adopted.

1978: Core curriculum adopted.

1979: President Bok announces the $350 million Harvard Campaign, the largest capital campaign in Harvard’s history.

1980: American Repertory Theater comes to Harvard.

1982: Harvard Museum of the Ancient Near East, originally named the Semitic Museum and closed for 40 years, is reopened.

1983: Democratic presidential candidates debate nuclear arms control at the Kennedy School.

1984: Fogg, Busch-Reisinger, and Sackler Museums combine to become the Harvard Art Museums.

A copy of the Harvard Gazette celebrating the 350th anniversary

Harvard celebrates its 350th anniversary

1900s (continued)

1991: Barack Obama, future U.S. president, graduates from the Law School.

1991: Neil Rudenstine is appointed president of Harvard.

1992: Harvard Kennedy School Forum hosts Mikhail Gorbachev.

1994: Harvard Business Publishing is founded.

1995: New cholera vaccine developed at Harvard Medical School.

1997: Mary Fasano became the oldest person ever to earn a Harvard degree when she graduated from the Extension School at the age of 89.

Nelson Mandela waving to the crowd at commencement

Nelson Mandela awarded honorary degree at special convocation

Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

1900s (continued)

1999:  Radcliffe College merges with Harvard College.

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Rapid evolution, breakthroughs, and discoveries


2001: Lawrence Summers is appointed president.

2001: On the eve of the 350th Commencement, Harvard’s four living Presidents—past, present, and future—gather for a group portrait in Loeb House.

2002: Former Astronomy Prof. Riccardo Giacconi shares half the Nobel Prize in Physics for pioneering work in astrophysics that led to the discovery of cosmic X-ray sources.

2004: Harvard Financial Aid Initiative is launched.

2007: School of Engineering and Applied Sciences is established.

Drew Faust at her inauguration

Drew Gilpin Faust begins duties as Harvard’s 28th President

She is the first woman to hold the position.

Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

2000s (continued)

2010: The Harvard Corporation expands from 7 to 13 members.

2010: Harvard University welcomes ROTC back to campus now that Congress has repealed a ban on gay and lesbian soldiers serving openly in the military.

2011: Harvard University awards degree to Native American student who died in 1665 just before Commencement.

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma celebrated the 375th birthday of Harvard University

Harvard celebrates its 375th anniversary

Pictured: Cellist Yo-Yo Ma celebrating the 375th birthday of Harvard University.

Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

2000s (continued)

2012: MIT and Harvard announce edX.

2012: Harvard announces plans to renew the University’s 12 undergraduate houses.

2012: Harvard releases first University-wide Sustainability Impact Report.

2013: President Drew Faust launches a $6.5 billion Harvard Campaign, the largest ever in higher education.

2013: Financial aid increases by $10M, bringing the total to a record $182 million.

2014: Kenneth Griffin ’89 makes $150 million gift to Harvard College, principally focused on supporting Harvard’s financial aid program.

2014: A $350 million gift comes from The Morningside Foundation, established by the family of the late T.H. Chan. The gift renames the Harvard School of Public Health to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

2015: John A. Paulson, M.B.A. ’80 made the largest gift in the University’s history, a $400 million endowment to support the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). The School is renamed the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

2018: Harvard’s redesigned Richard A. and Susan F. Smith Campus Center officially opens as a “front door” for University visitors.

Larry and Adele Bacow walking down the aisle during the inauguration

Lawrence S. Bacow is appointed president of Harvard

Pictured: Larry and Adele Bacow celebrate with the Harvard community during the 2018 inauguration.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

2000s (continued)

2019: A years-long effort by dozens of researchers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics reveals the first-ever image of a supermassive black hole.

2019: Professor Michael Kremer is awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on world poverty and Professor William G. Kaelin is awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on anemia.

2020: Harvard University announces the suspension in-person classes and shift to online learning in an effort to combat the spread of COVID-19.

2021: The newly completed Science and Engineering Complex in Harvard’s Allston campus welcomes students en masse for the first time.

2022: Harvard President Larry Bacow releases the Report of the Committee on Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery, accepting the committee’s recommendations in full, and announcing a historic commitment of $100 million to fund their implementation.

Claudine Gay walking toward the stage during her inauguration

Claudine Gay is appointed president of Harvard.

Pictured: Claudine Gay celebrates with the Harvard community during the 2023 inauguration.

Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

2000s (continued)

2023: Professor Claudia Goldin is awarded the Nobel Prize for her work tracking American women’s labor participation over centuries and the evolution of the wage gap.