College History

Ada Howard
Alice Freeman Palmer
Helen Shafer
Julia Irvine
Caroline Hazard
Ellen Fitz Pendleton
Mildred McAfee Horton
Margaret Clapp
Ruth Adams
Barbara W. Newell
Nannerl Overholser Keohane
Diana Chapman Walsh

Wellesley College was founded in 1870 by Henry and Pauline Durant, who were passionate about the higher education of women.

Wellesley’s first president, Ada Howard, and nearly all of the College’s early educators and administrators were women. (The slide show above depicts portraits of the first 12 presidents of the College. The 13th, H. Kim Bottomly, took office in 2007.)

The first students, numbering 314, moved into College Hall and began classes in 1875. From that first class, 18 were graduated in 1879.

Wellesley's Earliest Years

Over the next 25 years, Wellesley College developed from a nascent institution into a vibrant academic community built upon a strong liberal arts foundation. A major revision of the curriculum in the 1890s resulted in the development of courses of study in all the major sciences and the addition of many renowned members of the faculty, including Mary Whitin Calkins, who established one of the first psychology laboratories in the country in 1891; Emily Greene Balch, recipient of the 1946 Nobel Peace Prize, who taught economics and sociology; Katharine Lee Bates ’80, who taught English and authored many works, including “America the Beautiful.”

A number of student organizations and campus traditions that continue to contribute to Wellesley’s identity today were established during this early period, including Tree Day, hoop rolling, Flower Sunday, and step singing. Student Government was established in 1901.

The Twentieth Century

On March 17, 1914, College Hall was destroyed by fire. Though no lives were lost, Wellesley College suffered greatly from the loss of the oldest and most central building on campus. As the College rebuilt following the tragedy, nine major buildings were constructed in the next 17 years, and the academic center of the campus was relocated atop Norumbega Hill.

World War II brought additional changes, and attention, to Wellesley College. Wellesley’s seventh president, Mildred McAfee, took a leave of absence from 1942 to 1946 to lead the WAVES (Women’s Reserve of the U.S. Navy) and was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal in 1945. The campus also hosted men for the Navy Officer's Training Corps during the war. The College abandoned a number of post-baccalaureate programs soon after the war. Though vestiges of the original academic program remained, the modern Wellesley education was emerging.

Two of Wellesley's most famous alumnae—Madeleine Korbel Albright '59 and Hillary Rodham Clinton '69—were graduated in the following years. During the late 1960s another large curriculum revision occurred, polishing the modern course of study grounded in the liberal arts with significant and renowned science departments. Since 1968, exchange programs with other colleges such as MIT have further enhanced educational opportunities available to Wellesley students.

College Archives

The Wellesley College Archives is responsible for managing, maintaining, and making accessible those records of the College that have long-term historical value. These records include administrative records, manuscripts, photographs, maps, architectural plans, honors theses, and audio/video materials. The Archives also collects materials from alumnae and others that help document and illustrate the history of Wellesley College. Among other things, these materials include scrapbooks, photographs, letters, and assorted realia and ephemera.

The Archives are open to all; Wellesley College affiliation is not required. Visitors are asked to contact the office before visiting to be sure the Archives are open.

related

Green Girl

Why So Green?

Each class at Wellesley is assigned a color: red, yellow, purple, or green. Class colors are worn at events like Stepsinging and Reunion.

 


 

Exercise Image

Let's Get Physical!

Wellesley founder Henry Durant believed in the importance of physical exercise for women, a radical notion in the late 19th century. He outfitted the College Hall gymnasium with dumbbells, chest weights, and flying rings.

 


 

 


 

College Hall Fire Image

The Fire of 1914

On March 17, 1914, a fire broke out on the fourth floor of College Hall. It spread quickly and the building that took four years to build was destroyed in four hours. Amazingly, not a single life was lost, thanks to the fire drill system.