Founding and early history – 19th century
The university was founded as the Medical College of Louisiana in 1834 partly as a response to the fears of smallpox, yellow fever, and cholera in the United States. The university became only the second medical school in the South, and the 15th in the United States at the time. In 1847, the state legislature established the school as the University of Louisiana, a public university, and the law department was added to the university. Subsequently, in 1851, the university established its first academic department. The first president chosen for the new university was Francis Lister Hawks, an Episcopalian priest and prominent citizen of New Orleans at the time.
The university was closed from 1861 to 1865 during the American Civil War. After reopening, it went through a period of financial challenges because of an extended agricultural depression in the South which affected the nation's economy. Paul Tulane, owner of a prospering dry goods and clothing business, donated extensive real estate within New Orleans for the support of education. This donation led to the establishment of a Tulane Educational Fund (TEF), whose board of administrators sought to support the University of Louisiana instead of establishing a new university. In response, through the influence of former confederate general Randall Lee Gibson, the Louisiana state legislature transferred control of the University of Louisiana to the administrators of the TEF in 1884. This act created the Tulane University of Louisiana. The university was privatized, and is one of only a few American universities to be converted from a state public institution to a private one.
In 1884, William Preston Johnston became the first president of Tulane. He had succeeded Robert E. Lee as president of Washington and Lee University after Lee's death. He had moved to Louisiana and become president of Louisiana State University.
In 1885, the university established its graduate division, later becoming the Graduate School. One year later, gifts from Josephine Louise Newcomb totaling over $3.6 million, led to the establishment of the H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College within Tulane University. Newcomb was the first coordinate college for women in the United States and became a model for such institutions as Pembroke College and Barnard College. In 1894 the College of Technology formed, which would later become the School of Engineering. In the same year, the university moved to its present-day uptown campus on historic St. Charles Avenue, five miles (8 km) by streetcar from downtown New Orleans.
A view of Gibson Hall
in 1904, located on the uptown campus of Tulane University.
With the improvements to Tulane University in the late 19th century, Tulane had a firm foundation to build upon as the premier university of the Deep South and continued this legacy with growth in the 20th century. In 1901, the first cornerstone was laid for the F.W. Tilton Library, endowed by New Orleans businessman and philanthropist Frederick William Tilton (1821–1890). During 1907, the school established a four-year professional curriculum in architecture through the College of Technology, growing eventually into the Tulane School of Architecture. One year later, Schools of Dentistry and Pharmacy were established, albeit temporarily. The School of Dentistry ended in 1928, and Pharmacy six years later. In 1914, Tulane established a College of Commerce, the first business school in the South. In 1925, Tulane established the independent Graduate School. Two years later, the university set up a School of Social Work, also the first in the southern United States. Tulane was instrumental in promoting the arts in New Orleans and the South in establishing the Newcomb School of Art with William Woodward as director, thus establishing the renowned Middle American Research Institute was established in 1925 at Tulane "for the purpose of advanced research into the history (both Indian and colonial), archaeology, tropical botany (both economic and medical), the natural resources and products, of the countries facing New Orleans across the waters to the south; to gather, index and disseminate data thereupon; and to aid in the upbuilding of the best commercial and friendly relations between these Trans-Caribbean peoples and the United States."
University College was established in 1942 as Tulane's division of continuing education. By 1950, the School of Architecture had grown out of Engineering into an independent school. In 1958, the university was elected to the Association of American Universities, an organization consisting of 62 of the leading research universities in North America. The School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine again became independent from the School of Medicine in 1967. It was established in 1912. Tulane's School of Tropical Medicine also remains the only one of its kind in the country. On April 23, 1975, President Gerald Ford spoke at Tulane University's Fogelman Arena at the invitation of Congressman F. Edward Hebert, a representative of Louisiana's 1st Congressional District. During the historic speech, Ford announced that the Vietnam War was "finished as far as America is concerned" – one week before the fall of Saigon. Ford drew parallels to the Battle of New Orleans, saying that such positive activity could do for America's morale what the battle did in 1815.
During World War II, Tulane was one of 131 colleges and universities nationally that took part in the V-12 Navy College Training Program which offered students a path to a Navy commission.
A detailed account of the history of Tulane University from its founding through 1965 was published by Dyer.
Gibson Hall today. Facing historic St. Charles Avenue
, it is the entry landmark on the uptown campus.
In July 2004, Tulane received two $30-million donations to its endowment, the largest individual or combined gifts in the university's history. The donations came from James H. Clark, a member of the university's board of trustees and founder of Netscape, and David Filo, a graduate of its School of Engineering and co-founder of Yahoo!. A fund-raising campaign called "Promise & Distinction" raised $730.6 million by October 3, 2008, increasing the university's total endowment to more than $1.1 billion; by March 2009, Yvette Jones, Tulane's Chief Operating Officer, told Tulane's Staff Advisory Council that the endowment "has lost close to 37%", affected by the Great Recession.
In June 2018, the Tulane admissions office announced that it had received nearly 39,000 applications for the class of 2022 and admitted just 17.5% of those applicants.
As a result of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 and its damaging effects on New Orleans, most of the university was closed for the second time in its history—the first being during the Civil War. The closing affected the first semester of the school calendar year. The School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine's distance learning programs and courses stayed active. The School of Medicine relocated to Houston, Texas for a year. Aside from student athletes attending college classes together on the same campuses, most undergraduate and graduate students dispersed to campuses throughout the U.S. The storm inflicted more than $650 million in damages to the university, with some of the greatest losses impacting the Howard-Tilton Memorial Library and its collections.
Facing a budget shortfall, the Board of Administrators announced a "Renewal Plan" in December 2005 to reduce its annual operating budget and create a "student-centric" campus. Addressing the school's commitment to New Orleans, a course credit involving service learning became a requirement for an undergraduate degree. In 2006 Tulane became the first Carnegie ranked "high research activity" institution to have an undergraduate public service graduation requirement. In May 2006, graduation ceremonies included commencement speakers former Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, who commended the students for their desire to return to Tulane and serve New Orleans in its renewal.