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The University of Pittsburgh’s first students were from pioneer stock—families who forged lives on an emerging frontier before there was a United States of America. Now, Pitt graduates and their accomplishments are known worldwide as the University celebrates 220 years of pioneering spirit.

The Big 220


Paul Ruggiero


  Hugh Henry Brackenridge (Photos courtesy University Archives.)

In the September 2, 1786, issue of the Pittsburgh Gazette, lawyer Hugh Henry Brackenridge expressed an ambitious idea: to create an academy of learning on the western frontier. It read, in part:

The situation of the town of Pittsburgh is greatly to be chosen for a seat of learning; the fine air, the excellent water, the plenty and cheapness of provisions, render it highly favorable....I do not know that the legislature could do a more acceptable service to the commonwealth than by endowing a school at this place....We well know the strength of a state greatly consists in the superior mental powers of the inhabitants.

So began the spark of an idea that became the University of Pittsburgh. Initially created as a western academy of learning—modeled on Ben Franklin’s own Philadelphia Academy—the University of Pittsburgh, originally named the Pittsburgh Academy, received its charter in the same year the U.S. Constitution was ratified, 1787. Since that colonial-era start, Pitt has produced a record of accomplishment that stands tall against the test of time. Here are some highlights as the University celebrates its 220 years of existence.

Charter Granted, February 28, 1787

In 1787, the only ways to reach Pittsburgh were on foot, by boat, or on horseback. Eighteenth-century travelers emerged from thick tunnels of forest onto the convergence of three rivers to find a brick fort and a makeshift town. When Hugh Henry Brackenridge came to this edge of the western frontier, he saw an opportunity to build “a lite in the forested wilderness.” The school’s first curriculum included “Learned Languages, English, and the Mathematicks.” The Pittsburgh Academy evolved into the Western University of Pennsylvania, later renamed the University of Pittsburgh. Getting to the city is a lot easier now, but scientific, intellectual, and cultural frontiers still inspire pioneering achievements.

Commencement Day, Spring 1893

A math genius and treasurer of the student Philomathean Literary Society, William Hunter Dammond received his bachelor’s degree in civil engi-neering—with honors—from the Western University of Pennsylvania. He was the University’s first African American graduate and a pathfinder. After commencement, he became a noted teacher, engineer, and inventor in the railroad industry. He created an electric cab signal that replaced dangerous manual signals, and he also designed an alternating current track circuit, known as the Dammond Circuit.

First Day of Class, 1895

Margaret and Stella Stein could have walked easily from their East End home to a nearby women’s college. But the sisters were ready for a bigger challenge. So, when the Steins toiled up Observatory Hill for the start of classes, they were the first full-time female students in the University’s history. They studied a variety of subjects, including mathematics, astronomy, mathematical chemistry, and surveying. When they graduated with bachelor’s degrees in the “Latin scientific” course in 1898, the sisters were tied with one another for first place in their class. Both women also earned master’s degrees from the University in 1901.

Flight School, May 6, 1896

On the Potomac River, a buzz cut the spring air, and a catapult slung a winged craft from atop a boat. For a minute and a half, the mechanical bird spiraled 100 feet over the river before splashing down. The machine made history: It was the first heavier-than-air unmanned craft to actually fly, rather than hop or simply plummet. The designer of the steam-powered Aerodrome Number Five, Samuel Langley, first experimented with aeronautics when he was a professor in Pitt’s astronomy department. As director of Pitt’s Allegheny Observatory, he became internationally known for measuring distances between stars, inventing a device for measuring solar radiation, and creating a precise railroad timing method. More than seven years before the Wright brothers put a human into flight, Langley gave birds their first competition.

A Gleaming Idea, November 1924

Pitt trustee roared out, “The whole plan is nonsense,” during the formal dinner at which Chancellor John Bowman announced his vision for a 500-foot educational tower, inspired by the majestic “Magic Fire Music” from Wagner’s opera Die Walküre. It wasn’t the first—or last—critique. Undeterred, Bowman collected dimes from schoolchildren and an unprecedented $250,000 gift from U.S. Steel—the equivalent of nearly $3 million in today’s dollars—for his “tall building.” Upon its 1937 dedication, the Cathedral of Learning was the tallest academic building in the world. In 2007, more than 70 years of industrial grime and soot are being washed away as part of a $4.8 million preservation project to restore the tower’s aluminum and limestone façade.

Olympian Feat, August 4, 1936

Runner John Woodruff had a problem. It wasn’t the racially hostile Nazis hosting the Berlin Olympics. The Pitt freshman’s problem was more immediate: He was bottled up on the inside lane of the track by other runners in the 800-meter race. He would risk disqualification if he muscled through the pack. So he stopped. Completely. As everyone passed him, a runner’s shoe spiked him in the knee. Woodruff didn’t notice. He simply did what he did best: He ran faster than everyone else. In an astounding comeback, “Long” John Woodruff (CAS ’39) leaped nine feet with each stride to gain the lead and win the gold medal. Since then, other Pitt Olympians have earned medals at the Games, too: Herb Douglas (EDUC ’50G, ’48), bronze medal, long jump, 1948, London; Dick Rydze, silver medal, 10-meter diving (MED ’75), 1972, Munich; and Roger Kingdom (CGS ’02), gold medals, 110-meter hurdles, 1984, Los Angeles and 1988, Seoul.

World-Class Rooms, July 8, 1938

In the recently completed Cathedral of Learning, a thousand people attended the grand opening of the Scottish, Russian, German, and Swedish Rooms to the rousing swells of bagpipes and choirs. The international classrooms were the first to be built by Pitt’s Nationality Rooms Program, which partnered with local ethnic groups to design classrooms in the traditional architectural styles of their homelands. Chancellor John Bowman insisted on employing ethnic artisans and using authentic building materials, right down to the 200-year-old whitewashed bricks in the Swedish Room. Since the grand opening, the four original rooms have multiplied to 26, and more are planned.

Dancing with the Stars, March 20, 1952

Gene Kelly spun through clusters of ladies in blooming red dresses, leapt atop a bubbling fountain, and swayed with a beautiful Parisian woman. Kelly’s energy and athleticism in the stunning 17-minute ballet finale to An American in Paris helped the film dance away with the Best Motion Picture award on Oscar night in 1952. But before he crooned with Sinatra or sang in the rain, Kelly (CAS ’33) hoofed his way to a bachelor’s degree in economics at Pitt.

Conquering Heroes, April 12, 1955

The headline on the front page of the Pittsburgh Press read, “POLIO IS CONQUERED.” Similar headlines appeared in newspapers around the globe that day, touting one of the greatest medical breakthroughs in the 20th century: Jonas Salk and his Pitt research team had developed a vaccine against the crippling, and all-too-often deadly, polio virus. When Salk came to Pitt in 1947 and soon started, as he said, “fooling around with the polio thing,” the disease was nothing to toy with. Following outbreaks, swimming pools, theaters, and schools were closed for fear of spreading the disease among children. The Salk team, with the significant help of senior scientist Julius Youngner, focused on a killed-virus vaccine, which led to the remedy and worldwide celebration.

Global Trends, August 15, 1973

Zdravstvuite was just one of the ways Pitt taught students to say hello when the U.S. Department of Education designated the University’s Center for Russian and East European Studies as a National Resource Center (NRC). The recognition came with grants to support graduate students, teach rarely taught languages, and perform outreach. Since then, other University centers also have earned the coveted NRC designation—the East Asian Studies Center, Center for Latin American Studies, and European Studies Center—putting Pitt at the forefront of international studies among higher education institutions nationwide. The University’s International Business Center has a corresponding designation as a Center for International Business Education and Research, making Pitt one of only 17 higher education institutions nationwide to have four or more centers federally recognized.

The Panther Roars, January 1, 1977

With the national football championship on the line at the Sugar Bowl, the Pitt Panthers snagged four interceptions from the Georgia Bulldogs in the first half alone. Not even the feared “Junkyard Dog” defense could stop one of the best college football teams ever assembled. Coached by Johnny Majors, defended by All-American Al Romano (Class of ’77), anchored by Sugar Bowl MVP Matt Cavanaugh (CGS ’80, ’79) as quarterback, and set on fire by Heisman Trophy-winning tailback Tony Dorsett (Class of ’77), the Panthers made the Junkyard Dogs look more like chihuahuas in a 27-3 victory. The championship was the culmination of an 11-0 season and a year as the best football team in the country.

A Vision of Health, 1982

From a tucked-away office on the second floor of Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, Yale-spun psychiatrist Thomas Detre and his philosophy-trained business protégé Jeffrey Romoff began to create one of the nation’s top academic health systems, astronomically growing the University’s medical research ventures, notably strengthening all of Pitt’s Schools of the Health Sciences and creating the internationally acclaimed UPMC hospital system. A talent scout and resource builder, Detre laid the foundation for the thriving academic medical complex that exists today. A campus building now bears his name—Thomas Detre Hall.

Transplant History, February 14, 1984

On Valentine’s Day, 6-year-old Stormie Jones got a heart. The gift came not from a smitten first-grader, but from an organ donor. She also received a liver. At the University’s affiliated medical center, pioneering transplant surgeons Thomas E. Starzl and Henry T. Bahnson, along with a team of medical colleagues, treated her deadly cholesterol disorder in a marathon 16-hour operation—the first double-organ transplant in history. Starzl, who also performed the world’s first liver transplant, joined Pitt’s School of Medicine in 1981. He quickly expanded the Pittsburgh Transplantation Institute, renamed in his honor in 1996, into the world’s largest such center. The Thomas E. Starzl Transplantation Institute has performed more than 12,000 transplants and developed innovative antirejection drugs. Not only does the institute perform more types of transplants than any other center, its patients have a higher survival rate than the national average. At age 81, Starzl continues to research transplantation medicine as director emeritus of the institute and a Pitt distinguished service professor of surgery.

Nobel Acts, December 2003 and 2004

On every anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death, a grand ceremony is held to bestow honored guests with a gold medal, a diploma, and more than $1 million. Of course, honorees must do something spectacular to win. How about 30 million things? That’s how many trees were planted by the Green Belt Movement, a grassroots environmental organization founded by 2004 Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai (FAS ’65). Her struggle against deforestation in her home country of Kenya branched into a continuing crusade for women’s rights, democracy, poverty relief, and sustainable development. A year before Maathai (above) received the Nobel Peace Prize, another Pitt graduate was heralded. Paul Lauterbur (FAS ’62), who passed away this spring, received the 2003 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Sir Peter Mansfield for their part in developing magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, a technology that helps patients around the world. In the words of the award-program founder Alfred Nobel, the achievements of prizewinners, such as Lauterbur and Maathai, “have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.”

Building Our Future Together, 1995 and Beyond

When Pitt law school dean and professor Mark A. Nordenberg took the chancellor’s helm in 1995, he and the institution’s key leaders turned a difficult and defining moment in the University’s history into an ongoing period of spectacular achievement. Pitt is being transformed by a burst of progress that some said, a decade ago, would be impossible to accomplish. This future-shaping change is being fueled by a capital campaign that is shattering records. From an initial goal of $500 million (surpassed a year ahead of schedule) to a new goal of $1 billion (also surpassed with months to spare), the University is now forging ahead with a $2 billion campaign goal that continues to fund new student scholarships, faculty research, student life initiatives, classroom enhancements, and campus preservation projects for the benefit of Pitt people now and in future generations. With inspired leadership from Chancellor Nordenberg, we’re building our future together.

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