The George Washington University grew out of President George Washington’s desire to establish a national institution of higher learning. Washington believed the nation’s capital was the logical site for such an institution. He left a bequest toward that objective.
Founded by an Act of Congress
Washington died before his vision was carried out. The Rev. Luther Rice and three friends took up the effort; President James Monroe and 32 members of the U.S. Congress also became involved. On Feb. 9, 1821, Monroe signed the Act of Congress that created the Columbian College in the District of Columbia, a private, nonsectarian institution.
GW opened its doors in 1821 with three faculty members, one tutor and 30 students in a single building. At that time, Columbian College was located between 14th and 15th Streets, about a 30-minute walk from the Capitol. Its curriculum included English, Latin and Greek, as well as mathematics, chemistry, astronomy, reading, writing, navigation and political law. The first graduates received degrees in December 1824. Shortly after, Columbian College added a medical school and a law school.
A Great University in a Great City
The Civil War transformed Washington, D.C., into a growing urban center. During war, most students left to join the Confederacy, and the college’s buildings were used as a hospital and barracks. Walt Whitman was among the war volunteers on the campus.
In 1873, Columbian College changed its name to Columbian University and moved to a location at 15th and L Streets. It began offering doctoral degrees and admitted its first women. Columbian University became The George Washington University in 1904 under an agreement with the George Washington Memorial Association. In 1912, the university began the move to its present location in Foggy Bottom.
A Tradition of Innovation
The university was a center for theoretical physics in the 1930s. Renowned cosmologist George Gamow produced critical work on the Big Bang Theory at GW. And one of the most important moments in the 20th century was revealed at a conference on the GW campus: On Jan. 26, 1939, Niels Bohr announced that Otto Hahn had successfully split the atom.
The university underwent a building boom in 1930s through the 1960s, adding Lisner Auditorium on 21st Street, a hospital near Washington Circle and numerous other structures. During this period, GW initiated a program of annual alumni gifts, creating an important source of revenue that continues to this day.
In 1991, GW opened the Virginia Science and Technology Campus, in Ashburn, devoted to graduate study and cutting-edge research. Five years later, the University purchased the Mount Vernon College for Women in the city’s Foxhall neighborhood. The coeducational Mount Vernon Campus is fully integrated into the GW community and complements the Foggy Bottom Campus.