Founded by Hugh Henry Brackenridge as Pittsburgh Academy in 1787, the University of Pittsburgh is one of the few universities and colleges established in the 18th century in the United States. It is the oldest continuously chartered institution of learning in the U.S. west of the Allegheny Mountains. The school began as a preparatory school, presumably in a log cabin, possibly as early as 1770 in Western Pennsylvania, then a frontier. Brackenridge obtained a charter for the school from the state legislature of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania on February 28, 1787, just ten weeks before the opening of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. A brick building was erected in 1790 on the south side of Third Street and Cherry Alley for the Pittsburgh Academy. The small two-story brick building, with a gable facing the alley, contained three rooms: one below and two above.
Western University of Pennsylvania
The university in 1833 at its location on 3rd Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh
Within a short period, more advanced education in the area was needed, so in 1819 the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania amended the school's 1787 charter to confer university status. The school was named the Western University of Pennsylvania, or WUP, and was intended to be the western sister institution to the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. By 1830, WUP had moved into a new three-story, freestone-fronted building, with Ionic columns and a cupola, near its original buildings fronting the south side of Third Street, between Smithfield Street and Cherry Alley in downtown Pittsburgh. By the 1830s, the university faced severe financial pressure to abandon its traditional liberal education in favor of the state legislature's desire for it to provide more vocational training. The decision to remain committed to liberal education nearly killed the university, but it persevered despite its abandonment by the city and state. It was also during this era that the founder of Mellon Bank, Thomas Mellon (Class of 1837), graduated and later taught at WUP.
The university's buildings, along with most of its records and files, were destroyed in the Great Fire of 1845 that wiped out 20 square blocks of Pittsburgh. Classes were temporarily held in Trinity Church until a new building was constructed on Duquesne Way (on what was the site of the former Horne's department store). Only four years later, in 1849, this building also was destroyed by fire. Due to the catastrophic nature of these fires, operations were suspended for a few years to allow the university time to regroup and rebuild. By 1854, WUP had erected a new building on the corner of Ross and Diamond (now Forbes Avenue) streets (site of the present day City-County building) and classes resumed in 1855. It is during this era, in 1867, that Samuel Pierpont Langley, astronomer, inventor, aviation pioneer and future Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, was chosen as director of the Allegheny Observatory that was donated to WUP in 1865. Langley was professor of astronomy and physics and remained at WUP until 1891, when he was succeeded by another prominent astronomer, James Keeler. Growing quickly during this period, WUP outgrew its downtown facilities and the university moved its campus to Allegheny City (present-day North Side).
The university eventually found itself on a 10-acre (4.0 ha) site on the North Side's Observatory Hill at the location of its Allegheny Observatory. There, it constructed two new buildings, Science Hall and Main Hall, that were occupied by 1889 and 1890 respectively. During this era, the first collegiate football team was formed at Pitt in 1889. In 1892, the Western Pennsylvania Medical College was amalgamated into the university. By 1893, the university had graduated its first African-American, William Dammond. In 1895 WUP established its School of Law, and Andrew Carnegie and George Westinghouse were elected to the board of trustees, where they joined Andrew Mellon, who had been elected in 1894. The Pittsburgh College of Pharmacy and Pittsburgh Dental School also joined the university in 1896. In 1898, the first women, sisters Margaret and Stella Stein, graduated from the university. During this period, University engineering professor Reginald Fessenden was conducting pioneering work in radio broadcasting. By 1904, playing at Exposition Park, the university had its first undefeated football team.
A new name and home
The Cathedral of Learning
, the centerpiece of Pitt's campus and the tallest educational building in the Western Hemisphere
Citing a need to avoid confusion, distinguish itself from the University of Pennsylvania, and return to its roots by identifying itself with the city, the Western University of Pennsylvania, by act of the state legislature, was renamed the University of Pittsburgh in the summer of 1908. During this time, the university had also outgrown its accommodations on what is now the North Side of Pittsburgh and its departments had been scattered throughout the city for years. To consolidate all of its components on one campus, WUP bought 43 acres (170,000 m2) of land in December 1907 in what is now the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh and began relocating departments there by 1909. The initial campus plan for the new location centered on the winning submission from a national architectural contest that incorporated a Greek Acropolis design by Henry Hornbostel for 30 buildings. However, due to financial and other constraints, only four of the buildings were constructed in this style, of which only Thaw Hall remains today. In the fall of 1909, the university became the first college to adopt the panther as its mascot. It was also during this period that the university, led by Chancellor Samuel McCormick, again held off pressures to abandon the school's commitment to liberal education in favor of more technical-based training. During his administration, McCormick also led the university into a new level of national recognition, expansion, and growth, as well as beginning institutional support of athletics.
In the 1920s, new university chancellor John Gabbert Bowman declared that he had a vision for a centerpiece "tall building" for the university. The 14 acres (5.7 ha) Frick Acres property in Oakland was soon purchased and plans for the campus shifted focus from the hillside to a neo-Gothic Revival plan that today comprises the Cathedral of Learning, Heinz Memorial Chapel, Stephen Foster Memorial, and Clapp Hall buildings. By 1925, Bowman had settled on a design by Charles Klauder for the "tall building": an attention-getting 535-foot (163 m) tower whose great height, with open spaces all around, would suggest the "character that ought to be in an educated man." The building's "parallel lines going up and up...would express courage [and] fearlessness" and it would "unify Pittsburgh into a community conscious of its character." The Cathedral is "cut off" flat at the top to suggest that its lines, like education, have no ending. The building was financed by donors and by a campaign to collect dimes from local school children. Bowman was a persuasive leader and although the Great Depression intervened, the Cathedral of Learning, on which construction was begun in 1926, began hosting classes in 1931 and was formally dedicated in 1937. Today, it remains the second tallest university building in the world and contains an equally impressive interior highlighted by a half-acre (2,000 m²) Gothic hall Commons Room with 52-foot (16 m) tall arches currently surrounded by 30 Nationality Rooms. Seven more Nationality Rooms are in the making.
Development of the polio vaccine
developed the first polio vaccine at the University of Pittsburgh.
In the early 20th century, epidemics of polio began to hit the United States and other industrialized countries. As hospitals filled with patients in iron lungs, and tens of thousands were left disabled, the fear of polio grew, leading to the closing of many public facilities. Meanwhile, Dr. Jonas Salk had set up the University of Pittsburgh's Virus Research Lab in the basement of what is now Salk Hall. By 1951, Salk and his team had begun immunization experiments in monkeys using dead polio virus. Soon, however, Salk began to test inoculations in paralyzed polio patients and by 1953 human trials among the general population were initiated. By the spring of the following year, the largest controlled field trials in medical history were underway, and by 1955 the vaccine developed by Salk and his researchers was declared effective. By 1962, Salk's vaccine had reduced the incidence of polio in the United States by 95 percent. The breakthroughs in immunology and vaccine development at Pitt by Salk and his team are considered one of the most significant scientific and medical achievements in history.
State relations to present day
In 1966, Pitt was designated by Pennsylvania as a state-related university. As such, Pitt receives public funds ($154.3 million in fiscal year 2016) covering about 7% of its operating budget, and offers reduced tuition to Pennsylvania residents. Pitt retains independent control, but is typically categorized as a public university. Upon affiliation with the state, subsidized tuition led to a massive influx of new students and rapid expansion of Pitt's size and scope. In the 1970s, Pitt's football team returned to greatness with a national championship season in 1976 led by running back Tony Dorsett and continued success in the 1980s with players such as quarterback Dan Marino. In the 1980s, significant medical research in the field of organ transplantation was conducted by Thomas Starzl, establishing Pitt as the world leader in the field of organ transplantation. In 1991, chancellor Wesley Posvar retired after 24 years in office. His administration is best known for elimination of the university's debt from its 1960s financial crisis and for increasing the school's prestige and endowment. Under Posvar, Pitt's operating budget grew sevenfold to $630 million and its endowment tripled to $257 million.
Mark Nordenberg was chancellor of the university from 1995 to 2014 and led Pitt through a period of substantial progress, including a $2-billion capital-raising campaign that is over three quarters of the way toward achieving its goal and a $1-billion 12-year facilities plan. Major initiatives and events that have occurred during his tenure include the construction of the Petersen Events Center, a major expansion of on-campus housing, the growth of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and the restructuring of its relationship with the university, and a series of disruptive bomb threats that occurred in 2012.
Patrick D. Gallagher was named the 18th chancellor of the university and assumed the office on August 1, 2014.