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History of the Pennsylvania State University

The Pennsylvania State University was founded on February 22, 1855 by act P.L.46, No.50 of the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as the Farmers' High School of Pennsylvania. Centre County became the home of the new school when James Irvin of Bellefonte donated 200 acres (809,000 m²) of land and sold the trustees 200 acres more.[1] In 1861, Penn State graduated its first class, marking the first graduates of a baccalaureate program at an American agricultural college.[2] On May 1, 1862, the school's name was changed to the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania,[2] and with the passage of the Morrill Land-Grant Act, Pennsylvania selected the school in 1863 to be the state's sole land grant college.[2] In the following years, enrollment fell as the school tried to balance purely agricultural studies with a more classic education, falling to 64 undergraduates in 1875, a year after the school's name changed once again to the Pennsylvania State College.

During this period, the college was financed by tuition and the sale of the land scrip which Pennsylvania received from the Federal government under the Morrill Act. The state did not appropriate funds for the maintenance of the college until 1887.[2] However, the Legislature appropriated $50,000 to complete Old Main in 1860.[2] In 1873, Rebecca Hannah Ewing became the college's first woman graduate.[3]


  • President Atherton 1
  • Early 20th Century 2
  • Mid 20th Century 3
  • Modern years 4
  • External links 5
  • References 6

President Atherton

Past Penn State Presidents
Name Tenure
Evan Pugh 1859–1864
William Henry Allen 1864–1866
John Fraser 1866–1868
Thomas Henry Burrowes 1868–1871
James Calder 1871–1880
Joseph Shortlidge 1880–1881
James Y. McKee 1881–1882
George W. Atherton 1882–1906
James A. Beaver 1906–1908
Edwin Erle Sparks 1908–1920
John Martin Thomas 1921–1925
Ralph Dorn Hetzel 1927–1947
James Milholland 1947–1950
Milton S. Eisenhower 1950–1956
Eric A. Walker 1956–1970
John W. Oswald 1970–1983
Bryce Jordan 1983–1990
Joab Thomas 1990–1995
Graham Spanier 1995–2011
Rodney Erickson 2011–2014
denotes acting president

mechanical engineering. Shortly after, Penn State became one of the ten largest engineering schools in the nation. Atherton also expanded the liberal arts and agriculture programs, and as a result, was rewarded with regular appropriations from the state beginning in 1887. For this, Atherton is widely credited of saving Penn State from bankruptcy, and is still honored today by the name of a major road in State College and its suburbs, Atherton Street. Contrary to popular belief, Atherton Hall is not named after President Atherton but his wife Frances Atherton. Atherton's grave rests near Old Main, the University Park campus's central administration building, and is marked by an engraved marble block resting in front of his statue.

Early 20th Century

In the years that followed, Penn State grew significantly, becoming the state's largest source of baccalaureate degrees and reaching an enrollment of 5,000 in 1936. Around this time, Commonwealth campuses were started by President Ralph Hetzel to give an alternative to Depression-era students who were economically unable to leave home to attend college.

Mid 20th Century

In 1950 Penn State hired Milton Eisenhower, who was the President of Kansas State University, to be its President, and he served for six years. In 1953, the school's name changed to The Pennsylvania State University. Eisenhower's older brother Dwight Eisenhower delivered the Commencement address in June 1955.[4] In 1955, Penn State dedicated its nuclear reactor, the second in the nation to be operated on a college campus.[5] Under Eisenhower's successor, Dr. Eric A. Walker, the university developed rapidly. Under his leadership, which lasted from 1956–1970, the university added hundreds of acres of surrounding land, and nearly tripled enrollment to 40,000.

In 1963, the Hershey Trust offered Penn State $50 million gift to establish a new a Hershey Medical Center, a college of medicine and hospital in Hershey, Pennsylvania.[6] Penn State's College of Medicine opened its doors to its first class of students in 1967, and Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center accepted the first patients in 1970.[7]

In 1965, Penn State began operating its educational television station, WPSX-TV.[6]

Modern years

In the 1970s, The Pennsylvania State University became a state-related institution, like the University of Pittsburgh, Temple University, and Lincoln University. As such, it belongs to the Commonwealth System of Higher Education.

In recent years, Penn State's role as a leader in education in Pennsylvania has become well-defined. In 1989, the Big Ten. The university has turned to philanthropy to replace state funding, with 2003 marking the end of the Grand Destiny campaign – a 7-year effort which raised over $1.3 billion for the University.[8]

In 2004, Penn State started celebrating its 150th anniversary, since 2005 marks the University's sesquicentennial.

External links

  • Bezilla, Michael. Penn State: An Illustrated History Penn State University Archives:
  • Penn State Presidents and their achievements Penn State University Archives:


  1. ^ Appletons' annual cyclopaedia and register of important events of the year: 1862. New York: D. Appleton & Company. 1863. p. 6. 
  2. ^ a b c d e Retrieved October 3, 2008.
  3. ^ Retrieved October 3, 2008.
  4. ^ Retrieved October 4, 2008.
  5. ^ Retrieved October 4, 2008.
  6. ^ a b Retrieved October 3, 2008.
  7. ^ Penn State College of Medicine (2006). "About the College of Medicine". Retrieved December 31, 2006. 
  8. ^ a b Retrieved October 4, 2008.
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