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The History of Northwestern University

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0

Northwestern sits on the north side of Chicago, not actually in the city but rather the quaint town of Evanston. It’s known for it’s high academic standards and difficulty to get in, though not as hard as Ivy League schools.  The school is one of founding members of the Big Ten, and is the only private school in the conference.


Northwestern is old, older than the state of Illinois.  It was founded as a private institution in 1851 to serve students in the Northwest Territory, an area that now contains the states of Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota. 379 acres of land were bought in1853, and developed it into a campus and town.  It was named Evaston after John Evans, one of the university’s founders, and built around the campus.

The university didn’t actually open its doors until 1855 when the first building was completed, and taught a small class of 10 students.


The school quickly grew and attracted attention, in part from student actions. In 1860 a ship named the Lady Elgin sank in Lake Michigan, but student Edward Spencer rescued 17 passengers. Northwestern added it’s first Master’s program in 1863, and in 1869 women were allowed to enroll in the school under the same terms and conditions as male students. Following Spencer’s lead, the university also founded a life saving station and saved over 400 hundred people from drowning between 1871 and 1916 when the Coast Guard took over. Women enrollment grew when the Evanston College for Ladies merged with Northwestern in 1873 and a Dean of Women position was founded.  

Ward Building

The Chicago campus was built in pits and pieces, but with the construction of the Montgomery Ward Memorial Building in 1927, America’s first academic skyscraper, the campus was official dedicated in June of that year.

In the 1880s is when traditions seemed to develop. The student newspaper, which today is deemed to be one the most successful and well-written campus papers, was started in 1881. Football began in 1882, and in 1886 the first Trig Cremation Day was celebrated by freshman burning their trigonometry books. Homecoming was introduced later in 1911.

Northwestern didn’t adopt an official school color until 1892 and even then it only selected one, purple.  It wasn’t until 1925 that the name ‘Wildcats’ was chosen.

Northwestern University Logo
And then, in 1896 Northwestern became a founding member of the Big Ten.

Nationally Known

By 1900, Northwestern was known thoughout the country.  It had the 3rd highest enrollment in the nation in 1900 and was visited in 1903 by President Roosevelt. The football team also won their first Big Ten championship that year, only to have the team banned from 1905-1907 for violence. The University’s Medical Corp was active during World War I, sending close to four thousands students, male and female, to help the cause. 1939, the first year of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, held its championship game at Northwestern. And in 1993, the university attracted international attention with Princess Diana’s visit.

Northwestern also started to collect celebrities between 1900 and 1950. In 1921 Kenneth Huszagh participated in the Olympics. And in 1933 Professor Vladimir Ipatieff developed the modern theory of chemical catalysis, the basis of U.S. petrochemical industry. The tradition continues, with many alumni from 1950 becoming well known in their fields.

It was also in the first half of the 1900s that Northwestern expanded it’s degrees offered. The School of Commerce opened in 1908 and the School of Engineering the following year.  Political Science emerged in 1915. In 1921 the well-known Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications was established. The School of Education was added in 1926, as was a Navy ROTC program. Come 1948, a Program of African Studies was created.


Currently, Northwestern has three campuses, the original in Evanston, a secondary one in downtown Chicago (similar to the University of Illinois whose main campus is also not downtown), and a recent branch in Qatar for journalism and communication.  It remains a high ranked university, coming in at number 12 for the US News 2012 ranking of national universities.  There are 250 activity clubs for students to participate in and 11 residential colleges.

Because it’s a private school, it’s also small.  With 8,400 total students, 75% of its classes have less than 20 students in them.  Compared to other Big Ten school, such as the University of Michigan who has about 24,000 undergrads alone, that’s a lot of individual attention.



Sources: [782] [783]



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  1. "Northwestern University." Wikipedia. 15/10/2011 <Web >
  2. "History." Northwestern University. 15/10/2011 <Web >

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