A Brief History of the University of Pennsylvania

Benjamin Franklin, eager to establish a college to instruct upcoming generations of Philadelphians, introduced his idea for the “Publick Academy of Philadelphia” to the city’s men and women in the fall of 1749. He promoted an avant-garde conception of higher education, teaching both the practical skills required for earning a living and the ornamental knowledge of the arts, in a pamphlet titled Proposals for the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania. Rather than preparing their students for careers in business and public service, the four English colonial colleges at the time—Harvard, William & Mary, Yale, and Princeton—were all established as institutions for training clergy. With his usual fervor and determination to see his vision of the Academy of Philadelphia realized, he put together a board of trustees and searched for the most affordable way to construct a campus.

Franklin concentrated on the land and unfinished “New Building” of evangelist George Whitefield, despite a trustee’s offer of a prime building lot. There, in 1740, a group of Philadelphians from the working class made the decision to construct the city’s greatest structure—a grand preaching hall—as well as a charitable school for “the instruction of poor children.” However, the plans for the chapel and school were put on hold because the funding for the building and the school had not been sufficient. In January 1751, Franklin took advantage of a chance to rapidly and affordably launch his Academy. He also opened a charity school in line with the goals of the original “New Building” benefactors.

The Reverend William Smith, Franklin’s hand-selected provost, had an as potent and enduring impact on Penn and the American University as Franklin did. Smith created a curriculum that gave students a strong foundation in both the more applied sciences and the Classics, which was another first for the Colonial Colleges. Smith was so committed to the school that he taught classes from the Old City Jail even after he was arrested for opposing the policies of the popularly elected Provincial Assembly!

The College of Philadelphia was taken over by the state of Pennsylvania in 1779 amid the chaos of the American Revolution, since the revolutionary government perceived the college as a Tory stronghold. America’s first state school and university were established when the state converted the College into the University of the State of Pennsylvania. With members of the Board of Trustees representing every denomination and the sole non-sectarian faculty in the fledgling country, this university was founded with a more egalitarian goal than had ever been envisioned in the colonies. After the initial excitement of the Revolution subsided, the University of Pennsylvania was turned private in 1791, at which point it acquired its present name.

The University and the fledgling American Republic experienced extraordinary times during the eighteenth century. When John Morgan established a medical faculty at the university in 1765, it became the first medical school in the colonies. In 1790, James Wilson delivered the first law lectures under the new federal government at Penn. By the time its first fifty years had come to a conclusion, the University had been training the leaders of both the new country and the state of Pennsylvania: nine signers of the Constitution and eleven of the Declaration of Independence were alumni. The University relocated to the President’s House on Ninth and Chestnut Streets in 1802, after the Continental Congress called College Hall home in 1778.

The University started to adapt to the times after nearly 150 years as a teaching institution, with a student population that was still openly performing Aristophanes’ plays by the end of the 19th century. Inspired by the German model of higher education, Penn accomplished a remarkable metamorphosis into a research university that produces information in addition to disseminating it. near 1872, Penn moved its campus a second time, this time to the expansive Almshouse estate west of the Schulykill River near Philadelphia, under the direction of Provost Charles Janeway Stillé. Here, Spruce Street was lined with blocks of labs, and innumerable researchers were hired, reviving Franklin’s spirit of creation and discovery. Under William Pepper’s provostship, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Penn was established in 1882 with a focus on research and the promotion of knowledge. The first Ph.D. in Physics was granted in 1889.

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