In 1865, the Indiana General Assembly voted to take advantage of the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act of 1862, and began plans to establish an institution with a focus on agriculture and engineering. Communities throughout the state offered their facilities and money to bid for the location of the new college. Popular proposals included the addition of an agriculture department at Indiana University or at what is now Butler University. By 1869, Tippecanoe County’s offer included $150,000 from Lafayette business leader and philanthropist John Purdue, $50,000 from the county, and 100 acres (40 ha) of land from local residents. On May 6, 1869, the General Assembly established the institution in Tippecanoe County as Purdue University, in the name of the principal benefactor. Classes began at Purdue on September 16, 1874, with six instructors and 39 students. A campus of five buildings was completed by the end of the year. Purdue issued its first degree, a Bachelor of Science in chemistry, in 1875 and admitted its first female students that fall.
Emerson E. White, the university’s president from 1876 to 1883, followed a strict interpretation of the Morrill Act. Rather than emulate the classical universities, White believed that Purdue should be an "industrial college" and devote its resources toward providing a liberal (or broad) education with an emphasis on science, technology, and agriculture. He intended not only to prepare students for industrial work, but also to prepare them to be good citizens and family members. Part of White’s plan to distinguish Purdue from classical universities included a controversial attempt to ban fraternities. This ban was ultimately overturned by the Indiana Supreme Court and led to White’s resignation.
In the late 1890s former U.S. President Benjamin Harrison served on the board of trustees and delivered lectures about world affairs. By the end of the nineteenth century, the university was organized into schools of agriculture, engineering (mechanical, civil, and electrical), and pharmacy. Purdue had a number of engineering laboratories, including testing facilities for a locomotive and a Corliss steam engine, one of the most efficient engines of the time. The School of Agriculture was sharing its research with farmers throughout the state with its cooperative extension services and would undergo a period of growth over the following two decades. Programs in education and home economics were soon established, as well as a short-lived school of medicine.
President Edward C. Elliott oversaw a campus building program between the world wars. Inventor, alumnus, and trustee David E. Ross coordinated several fundraisers, donated lands to the university, and was instrumental in establishing the Purdue Research Foundation. Ross’s gifts and fundraisers supported such projects as Ross–Ade Stadium, the Memorial Union, a civil engineering surveying camp, and the Purdue University Airport. The Purdue Airport was the country’s first university-owned airport and the site of the country’s first college-credit flight training courses. Amelia Earhart joined the Purdue faculty in 1935 as a consultant for these flight courses and as a counselor on women’s careers. In 1937, the Purdue Research Foundation provided the funds for the Lockheed Electra 10-E that Earhart flew on her attempted round-the-world flight.
Every school and department at the university was involved in some type of military research or training during World War II. During a project on radar receivers, Purdue physicists discovered properties of germanium that led to the making of the first transistor. The Army and the Navy conducted training programs at Purdue and more than 17,500 students, staff, and alumni served in the armed forces. Purdue also set up about a hundred centers throughout Indiana to train skilled workers for defense industries. As veterans returned to the university under the G.I. Bill, first-year classes were taught at some of these sites to alleviate the demand for campus space. Four of these sites are now degree-granting regional campuses of the Purdue University system. Purdue’s on-campus housing became racially desegregated in 1947, following pressure from Purdue President Frederick L. Hovde and Indiana Governor Ralph F. Gates.
After the war, Hovde worked to expand the academic opportunities at the university. The 1950s saw a decade-long construction program with an emphasis on science and research. The university established programs in veterinary medicine, industrial management, and nursing, as well as the first computer science department in the United States. Undergraduate humanities courses were strengthened, although Hovde only reluctantly approved of graduate-level study in these areas. Purdue awarded its first Bachelor of Arts degrees in 1960. The programs in liberal arts and education, formerly administered by the School of Science, were soon split into their own school.
In recent years, Purdue’s leaders have continued to support high-tech research and international programs. In 1987, U.S. President Ronald Reagan visited the West Lafayette campus to give a speech about the influence of technological progress on job creation. In the 1990s, the university expanded its course offerings in foreign languages and world cultures and added more opportunities to study abroad. The first buildings of the Discovery Park interdisciplinary research center were dedicated in 2004. Purdue launched a Global Policy Research Institute in 2010 to explore the potential impact of technical knowledge on public policy decisions.
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