Founding and 19th century
Bowdoin College was chartered in 1794 by the Massachusetts State Legislature and was later redirected under the jurisdiction of the Maine Legislature. It was named for former Massachusetts governor James Bowdoin, whose son James Bowdoin III was an early benefactor. At the time of its founding, it was the easternmost college in the United States, as it was located in Maine.
Bowdoin began to develop in the 1820s, a decade in which Maine became an independent state as a result of the Missouri Compromise and graduated U.S. President Franklin Pierce who played an integral role the nation's enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act, and advocated for the land rights of cotton plantations. The college also graduated two literary philosophers, the writers Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, both of whom graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1825. Franklin and Hawthorne began an official militia company called the 'Bowdoin Cadets'.
From its founding, Bowdoin was known to educate the sons of the politically elite and "catered very largely to the wealthy conservative from the state of Maine." The establishment of Bates College in nearby Lewiston, began a century-long academic and athletic rivalry between the two colleges ultimately creating a complex and enduring relationship. During the first half of the 19th century, Bowdoin required of its students a certificate of "good moral character" as well as knowledge of Latin and Ancient Greek, geography, algebra and the major works of Cicero, Xenophon, Virgil and Homer.
View of the campus from Coles Tower
Harriet Beecher Stowe started writing her influential anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, in Brunswick while her husband was teaching at the college, and Brigadier General (and Brevet Major General) Joshua Chamberlain, a Bowdoin alumnus and professor, was present at the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House in 1865. Chamberlain, a Medal of Honor recipient who later served as governor of Maine, adjutant-general of Maine, and president of Bowdoin, fought at Gettysburg, where he was in command of the 20th Maine in defense of Little Round Top. Major General Oliver Otis Howard, class of 1850, led the Freedmen's Bureau after the war and later founded Howard University; Massachusetts Governor John Andrew, class of 1837, was responsible for the formation of the 54th Massachusetts; and William P. Fessenden (1823) and Hugh McCulloch (1827) both served as Secretary of the Treasury during the Lincoln Administration. However, the college's involvement in the Civil War was mixed as Bowdoin had many ties to slave labor and the Confederacy.
With strained slave-relations between political parties President Franklin Pierce appointed Jefferson Davis as his Secretary of War, and the college awarded the soon-to-be President of the Confederacy an honorary degree. The Jefferson Davis Award was given to a student who excelled in legal studies after a donation was given to the college by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The award, however, was discontinued in 2015, with the current college president citing it as inappropriate due to the fact it was named after someone "whose mission was to preserve and institutionalize slavery." President Ulysses S. Grant, too, was given an honorary degree from the college in 1865. Seventeen Bowdoin alumni attained the rank of brigadier general during the Civil War, including James Deering Fessenden and Francis Fessenden; Ellis Spear, class of 1858, who served as Chamberlain's second-in-command at Gettysburg; and Charles Hamlin, class of 1857, son of Vice President Hannibal Hamlin.
Bowdoin was also the Medical School of Maine from 1821 to 1921
Although Bowdoin's Medical School of Maine closed its doors in 1921, it produced Dr. Augustus Stinchfield, who received his M.D. in 1868 and went on to become one of the co-founders of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. In 1877, the college would go on to graduate the infamous Charles Morse, the American banker who established near-monopoly of the ice business in New York, which directly lead to the financial Panic of 1907. Another alumnus in the sciences is the controversial entomologist-turned-sexologist Alfred Kinsey, class of 1916.
The college went on to educate and eventually graduate Arctic explorers Robert E. Peary, class of 1877, and Donald B. MacMillan, class of 1898. Peary led the first successful expedition to the North Pole in 1908, and MacMillan, a member of Peary's crew, explored Greenland, Baffin Island and Labrador in the schooner Bowdoin between 1908 and 1954. Bowdoin's Peary–MacMillan Arctic Museum honors the two explorers, and the college's mascot, the polar bear, was chosen in 1913 to honor MacMillan, who donated a statue of a polar bear to his alma mater in 1917.
Wallace H. White, Jr., class of 1899, served as Senate Minority Leader from 1944–1947 and Senate Majority Leader from 1947–1949; George J. Mitchell, class of 1954, served as Senate Majority Leader from 1989 to 1995 before assuming an active role in the Northern Ireland peace process; and William Cohen, class of 1962, spent twenty-five years in the House and Senate before being appointed Secretary of Defense in the Clinton Administration.
In 1970, it became one of a very limited number of liberal arts college to make the SAT optional in the admissions process, and in 1971, after nearly 180 years as a small men's college, Bowdoin admitted its first class of women. Bowdoin also phased out fraternities in 1997, replacing them with a system of college-owned social houses. Bowdoin began competing in the Colby-Bates-Bowdoin Consortium, with Bates and Colby in 1970. The consortium became an athletic rivalry, and academic exchange program. The three schools produce numerous contentions in athletics, most notably a football championship game and the Chase Regatta.
In 2001, Barry Mills, class of 1972, was appointed as the fifth alumnus president of the college. On January 18, 2008, Bowdoin announced that it would be eliminating loans for all new and current students receiving financial aid, replacing those loans with grants beginning with the 2008–2009 academic year. President Mills stated, "Some see a calling in such vital but often low paying fields such as teaching or social work. With significant debt at graduation, some students will undoubtedly be forced to make career or education choices not on the basis of their talents, interests, and promise in a particular field, but rather on their capacity to repay student loans. As an institution devoted to the common good, Bowdoin must consider the fairness of such a result."
In February 2009, following a $10 million donation by Subway Sandwiches co-founder and alumnus Peter Buck, class of 1952, the college completed a $250-million capital campaign. Additionally, the college has also recently completed major construction projects on the campus, including a renovation of the college's art museum and a new fitness center named after Peter Buck.