Washington University Receives its Charter: February 22, 1853

An early building at Washington University
Public Domain

The charter for Washington University was passed by the Missouri General Assembly on this date in 1853. The university was established through the efforts of a group of St. Louis business, political, and religious leaders who were eager to create an institution of higher learning in the Mississippi Valley. One of these leaders, William Greenleaf Eliot, was instrumental in the university’s founding and as such the school was at first named “Eliot Seminary.” Eliot, who was the grandfather of poet T.S. Eliot, did not like having the school bear is name however, and soon the name was changed to Washington Institute (and later Washington University) to honor George Washington. Coincidentally, Washington’s birthday is the same date that the charter was passed.

In its early years, WashU faced numerous challenges, including financial difficulties and the turmoil of the Civil War. Despite these obstacles, the university persevered and began to grow, both in terms of its physical campus and its academic offerings. The initial curriculum focused on classical education, but over time, the university expanded its programs to include engineering, law, and medicine, reflecting the changing needs of society and the region.

One of the most significant milestones in WashU’s early history was the relocation of the campus in the 1890s. The university moved from its original downtown St. Louis location to a more spacious and picturesque site in the western part of the city, which is now known as the Danforth Campus. This move was made possible by the generous donation of land and funds by the Danforth family and other benefactors, and it marked the beginning of a new era of growth and development for WashU.

Throughout its early history, Washington University in St. Louis demonstrated a commitment to academic excellence, community service, and innovation. The university’s founders and early leaders laid a strong foundation that has allowed WashU to evolve into a world-renowned institution of higher education, known for its rigorous academics, cutting-edge research, and vibrant campus community.