Harvard University History Timeline Design in Elementor

Harvard is perhaps best-known because of its enduring history of innovation in education. But even die-hard Harvard buffs are not likely to know all of these Harvard firsts and historical snippets.

1600s: Our Early Origins

John Harvard

1607: John Harvard, the College’s future namesake and first benefactor, was baptized at St. Saviour’s Church (now Southwark Cathedral), London.

1635: John Harvard received his M.A. from Cambridge University, England.

1636: The “Great and General Court of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England” approves £400 for the establishment of “a schoale or colledge” later to be called “Harvard.”

1637 (or early 1638)
“College Yard” purchased

“College Yard,” this tract became the nucleus of present-day Harvard Yard and remains at the southern end of the Old Yard.

John Harvard Library

1638: John Harvard wills his library (400 books) and half his estate to the College.

1639: In recognition of John Harvard’s bequest, the Great and General Court orders “that the colledge agreed upon formerly to bee built at Cambridg shalbee called Harvard Colledge.”

1649: The Town of Cambridge and President Henry Dunster give Harvard the “College Farm” at Billerica, Mass., which paid annual rent to the College until the farm was sold in 1775.

Harvard granted Charter

Drafted by Henry Dunster, the Charter of 1650 called for the Harvard Corporation to consist of seven individuals: the President, five Fellows, and a Treasurer. The Charter named the Corporation as the “President and Fellowes of Harvard College” and transferred to them, in “perpetual succession,” the duties of managing the College.

1600s (continued)

1653: John Sassamon, a Massachusett Indian, became the first known Native American to study at Harvard (probably for a term or so).

1692: Increase Mather awarded Harvard’s first Doctor of Divinity degree.

1700s: Harvard and the American Revolution

John Adams graduates

John Adams, future U.S. president, graduates. Before 1773, the graduates of Harvard were arranged in a hierarchy not of merit but “according to the dignity of birth, or to the rank of [their] parents.” By this rather undemocratic standard, Adams graduated 14th in a class of 24.

1700s (continued)

1764: Original Harvard Hall burns, destroying some 5,000 volumes and all but one of John Harvard’s books.

1780: The Massachusetts Constitution went into effect and officially recognized Harvard as a university. 

1783: With high ceremony, Harvard Medical School officially opened as the “Medical Institution of Harvard University.”

1791: A writer in the Boston press accused Harvard of poisoning students’ minds with Edward Gibbon’s monumental “History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” (1776-88). 

1800s: A Century of Growth


1810: John Thornton Kirkland begins 18-year presidency.

1829: Josiah Quincy begins his 16-year presidency.

1836: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow appointed professor.

1837: Ralph Waldo Emerson ’21 delivers Phi Beta Kappa oration.

Harvard Observatory is founded

Pictured: One of the Plate Stacks at the Harvard College Observatory.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

1800s (continued)

1845: Rutherford B. Hayes, future U.S. president, graduates from the Law School.

1846: John Collins Warren, Medical School professor, conducts first public demonstration of ether as surgical anesthetic.

1852: Harvard wins first intercollegiate sports event, a boat race against Yale on Lake Winnipesaukee.

Henry David Thoreau ’37 publishes Walden

Pictured: Daniel Ricketson’s portrait of Henry David Thoreau featured in a Houghton Library exhibition.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

1800s (continued)

1855: Holworthy Hall gets first gas lights in the Yard.

1865: Election of Overseers placed in the hands of alumni, severing legal ties with the Commonwealth.

1870: The Rev. Phillips Brooks laid the cornerstone of Memorial Hall.

1874: Department of Fine Arts is established.

The Harvard-Yale football game

New Haven, Conn., hosted the first Harvard-Yale football game, which Harvard won, to the delight of some 150 student boosters from Cambridge.

1800s (continued)

1879: The Harvard Annex, later known as Radcliffe College, opens with 27 female students.

1880: Theodore Roosevelt makes Phi Beta Kappa.

1886: 250th anniversary celebrated with more than 2,500 alumni and friends with President Grover Cleveland in attendance.

1890: Land given by Major Henry Lee Higginson ’55 dedicated as Soldiers Field, honoring alumni who died in the Civil War.

1894: Radcliffe College is incorporated.

1896: Fogg Art Museum opens.

1900s: A Century of Progress


1901: First course offered in landscape architecture and city planning.

1909: Abbott Lawrence Lowell begins his 24-year presidency.

1910: Theodore Roosevelt, Class of 1880, served as the 34th president of the Harvard Alumni Association (est. 1840).

1913: School of Public Health is established.

1914: Henry Cabot Lodge, Class of 1871, served as the 38th president of the Harvard Alumni Association (est. 1840).

Widener Library opens

Pictured: Widener Library 105 years later.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

1900s (continued)

1920: The College Library contained about 1,127,500 volumes.

1926: Samuel Eliot Morison is appointed official historian for Tercentenary.

1930: The House Plan is established with the opening of Dunster House and Lowell House.

1936: Graduate School of Public Administration is established.

Walter Gropius becomes head of architecture at Graduate School of Design

Pictured: Portrait of Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius with Joan Miro mural at Harvard’s Graduate Center.

© President and Fellows of Harvard College

1900s (continued)

1940: John F. Kennedy graduates.

1943: The Harvard Alumni Bulletin tally of Harvard men in active military service equaled “the mythical 10,000 men of Harvard.” Seventy-eight Harvard men had been killed in the line of duty, 20 were missing in action, and another 20 were prisoners of war.

IBM Mark I computer begins operation at Harvard

Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

1900s (continued)

1945: Publication of President Conant’s “General Education in a Free Society”; its recommendation will have wide influence.

1947: General George C. Marshall receives honorary degree: announces “Marshall Plan” at commencement.

1953: Nathan M. Pusey begins his 18-year presidency.

Helen Keller is the first woman to receive a Harvard honorary degree
1900s (continued)

1956: Memorial Hall tower burns down.

1959: Fidel Castro is guest of Law School Forum.

1968: Kennedy School of Government begins its Public Policy Program.

1969: Harvard Community Health plan begins serving patients.

1970: Helen H. Gilbert elected first woman member of the Board of Overseers.

1971: Derek C. Bok begins his 20-year presidency.

1978: Core curriculum adopted.

1979: President Bok announces the $350 million Harvard Campaign, the largest capital campaign in Harvard’s history.

1980: American Repertory Theater comes to Harvard.

1982: Harvard Museum of the Ancient Near East, originally named the Semitic Museum and closed for 40 years, is reopened.

1984: Fogg, Busch-Reisinger, and Sackler Museums combine to become the Harvard Art Museums.

Harvard celebrates its 350th anniversary
1900s (continued)

1991: Neil Rudenstine is appointed president of Harvard.

1992: Harvard Kennedy School Forum hosts Mikhail Gorbachev.

1994: Harvard Business Publishing is founded.

1995: New cholera vaccine developed at Harvard Medical School.

1997: Mary Fasano became the oldest person ever to earn a Harvard degree when she graduated from the Extension School at the age of 89.

Nelson Mandela awarded honorary degree at special convocation

Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

1900s (continued)

1999:  Radcliffe College merges with Harvard College.


2000s: Rapid Evolution and Breakthrough Discovery


2001: Lawrence Summers is appointed president.

2002: Former Astronomy Prof. Riccardo Giacconi shares half the Nobel Prize in Physics for pioneering work in astrophysics that led to the discovery of cosmic X-ray sources.

2004: Harvard Financial Aid Initiative is launched.

2007: School of Engineering and Applied Sciences is established.

Drew Gilpin Faust begins duties as Harvard’s 28th President

She is the first woman to hold the position.

Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

2000s (continued)

2009: Unified University-wide calendar is launched.

2010: The Harvard Corporation expands from 7 to 13 members.

2011: Harvard University awards degree to Native American student who died in 1665 just before Commencement.

Harvard celebrates its 375th anniversary

Pictured: Cellist Yo-Yo Ma celebrating the 375th birthday of Harvard University.

Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

2000s (continued)

2012: MIT and Harvard announce edX.

2015: John A. Paulson, M.B.A. ’80 made the largest gift in the University’s history, a $400 million endowment to support the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). The School is renamed the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

2018: Lawrence S. Bacow is appointed president of Harvard.

2020: The COVID-19 pandemic disrupts Harvard's operations, leading to a shift to remote learning and the implementation of safety measures.

2023: Ongoing developments and milestones, such as advancements in research, faculty appointments, and educational initiatives, continue to shape Harvard's history.