The University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas, is a public university with several satellite campuses, research and educational centers, medical centers, and classes across the state.
The university, often referred to as “KU,” formally opened its doors to students in September 1866, but its history began in 1855. At that time, the first legislature made a provision for a Kansas university, with buildings to be erected when Congress or benefactors would give money for their construction.
In 1856 Amos A. Lawrence instructed Dr. Charles Robinson, the agent of the Emigrant Aid Company at Lawrence, to commence the erection of a building to be used for a school, preparatory to a college or university. Amos Lawrence of Boston, Massachusetts, in whose honor the town of Lawrence was named, made plans for a college on the north end of Mount Oread, a hill west of the town. He gave notes and stocks amounting to $12,696 for the foundation of his proposed “Free State College.” This money was to be held in trust, and the income was “to be used for the advancement of religious and intellectual education of the young in Kansas Territory.” However, an imperfect deed to the land caused Mr. Lawrence’s plans to be delayed.
In 1858 the Presbyterian Church of the United States, believing that the funds of Mr. Lawrence could be secured to help it, took steps to establish a school on Mount Oread. In 1859 the legislature granted a charter to this institution under the name of “Lawrence University,” and a board of 22 trustees was appointed. In January 1859, the city of Lawrence provided a quitclaim deed of 40 acres to the trustees of the North College campus. The deed required several conditions, including that the university would be permanently located in Lawrence, that a brick building not less than 36 feet in width and 60 feet in length and two stories high be erected and completed within one year from the date, and that the school would be commenced within six months.
The Presbyterian Board of Education contributed $2,000 toward the erection of a college building. Contributions from citizens enabled the trustees to lay the foundation for the building known as the North College on Mount Oread.
To meet the conditions of the deed, a preparatory school called the “University of Lawrence” was opened in the basement of the Unitarian Church on April 11, 1859. However, it was discontinued three months later because there were no students. However, the Presbyterians continued with their building until winter. The following year, 1860, was one of hard times, so their project was abandoned until more money could be raised.
In the meantime, the Congregationalists appeared on the scene with the idea of building a “monumental college, commemorating the triumph of liberty over slavery in Kansas.” Mr. Lawrence, through his trustees, agreed to give the college his fund if it was to be under Congregational jurisdiction. However, when the Civil War erupted, it ended the plans of the Congregationalists temporarily, and they later established a school in Topeka.
At this point, work on the building was suspended owing to the lack of funds, and a new organization was effected under the control of the Protestant Episcopal Church. On January 9, 1861, a new charter was granted by the Legislature to the university, and the name changed to the “Lawrence University of Kansas.” On January 29, 1861, Congress set apart and reserved for the use and support of a State University in Kansas 46,080 acres of land.
Fresh contributions were received from various sources, and the new trustees were enabled to proceed with and complete the construction of the building. The edifice was 50 feet square, three stories high, and contained 11 rooms.
On November 2, 1863, the university was permanently located, and in 1864 the legislature passed a law organizing it. The government of the institution was vested in a board of regents, consisting of a president and 12 members to be appointed by the governor. Six departments were initially named as composing the university, including the department of science, literature, and the arts; the department of law; theory and practice of elementary instruction; the department of agriculture; and the normal department.
In September 1865, work commenced at North College, which was finished in September 1866. The first session of the preparatory school opened on September 12, 1866, with 26 young women and 29 young men registered during the first term. It was one of the earliest public institutions in the United States to admit men and women equally. The second year showed a marked growth in numbers, with 105 students.
In the beginning, the course of study leading to a Bachelor of Arts degree required seven years — three years in the preparatory school and four in the college. It was hoped to abandon the preparatory department quickly, but 25 years passed before it was accomplished. It was not until 1869 that collegiate-level courses were taught. The first class, of four members, graduated in 1873. Several changes occurred in the first years.
Reverend R. W. Oliver, the rector of the Protestant Episcopal Church of Lawrence, who had been elected chancellor in March 1865, resigned in the fall of 1867. In December 1867, General John Fraser, president of the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania, was elected chancellor of the university. The erection of Fraser Hall, the first building on the present university campus, marks his term of service. When Chancellor Fraser resigned on April 15, 1873, there were 173 students enrolled and 11 instructors employed.
In 1876 a normal department was established and maintained for several years. In November 1878, the law school was opened, with 13 students enrolled.
In 1880 a preparatory medical course under the administration of the college of liberal arts and sciences was started.
In 1890, F. H. Snow was elected to the office of chancellor, and by the close of the school year, there were 508 students enrolled in all departments, 36 professors employed, and five buildings fully occupied.
At about this time, the university received two very substantial monetary gifts. One was made by Colonel John J. McCook of New York City to encourage athletics among the students. With this money, a tract of 12 acres was secured, graded, and fenced for an athletic ground and given the name of McCook field.
KU began its football program on November 22, 1890, at Baldwin, Kansas. The Topeka Daily Capital reported that Baker University defeated Kansas University 22 to 9. The Weekly University Courier said the Baker-KU contest was the “first football match of any importance.”
The university became known over the years for its strong athletic programs. KU’s mascot has long been the Jayhawk, named for the Kansans Free State supporters who battled the Missouri pro-slavery forces along the border during Bleeding Kansas.
In 1891 the preparatory department was eliminated, and the college was reorganized with a school of arts and schools of engineering, law, fine arts, and pharmacy.
In 1894 Spooner Library and the chancellor’s residence were erected through the generosity of another large donor.
James Naismith, who had invented the game of basketball in 1891, joined the KU faculty in 1898 to coach basketball, teach physical education, and serve as chaplain. At that time, basketball was regarded in Kansas as a woman’s sport after coeds had experimented with the game in 1896. Naismith was surprised by the game’s popularity, commenting that wrestling was better exercise and that he enjoyed watching gymnasts as much as basketball. However, by the turn of the century, enough colleges had basketball teams that intercollegiate competition was possible. Forrest “Phog” Allen, one of Naismith’s students, became known as the father of basketball coaching.
The steady growth of the university under the leadership of Chancellor Snow increased the demand for equipment. Blake Hall, devoted to using physics and electrical engineering students, was completed in 1895; shops were erected for engineering students, and “The Fowler shops” were ready for use in 1899. The same year the school of medicine was established, and the legislature was asked for two new buildings, a chemistry building, and a natural history museum.
In 1899, Simeon B. Bell gave the university money and land in Rosedale (Kansas City, Kansas) under the condition that the hospital of the university medical school should be built there. Soon, the school of medicine was organized. The scientific department covering the first two years of the course was established in Lawrence and the clinical department at Rosedale.
By 1900, the campus had grown to 50 acres with nine instruction buildings and 1,294 students. The years of Mr. Strong’s administration were years of expansion. In 1902 the first session of summer school was held. In the next decade, the number of buildings grew to 20, including the natural history museum, Green Hall, the Eleanor Bell Memorial Hospital, and the Robinson Auditorium-Gymnasium. The campus also grew to 163.5 acres laid out by a landscape gardener. Potter Lake near the west side was constructed in 1910-11 for fire protection and ornamentation.
As enrollment increased, more courses of study were added. The new departments were education, university extension, home economics, and industrial research. The university also circulated several publications. In 1911, the library boasted 5,000 volumes and 40,000 pamphlets. The number of instructors was 146.
The clinical department of the medical program was reorganized in the fall of 1905 by the merger of the Kansas City Medical College, founded in 1897, Medico-Chirurgical College, founded in 1896, and the College of Physicians and Surgeons, founded in 1894. The hospital building was erected, and the department was opened in 1906. The training school for nurses in connection with the hospital was established in July of the same year.
A new hospital was built in the summer of 1911. The enrollment in all departments that year was about 2,400 students.
During World War II, Kansas was one of 131 colleges and universities nationally that took part in the V-12 Navy College Training Program, which offered students a path to a Navy commission.
The University of Kansas today continues to influence some 28,000 students each year at its Lawrence campus, as well as satellite campuses, research and educational centers, medical centers, and classes across Kansas. The original campus is now the University of Kansas Historic District, occupying 85 acres with 52 resources — buildings, landmarks, and landscapes. Covering the period of 1863-1951, six of the buildings are individually listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Enrollment at the Lawrence and Edwards campuses was 28,401 students in 2016; an additional 3,383 students were enrolled at the KU Medical Center for an enrollment of 28,091 students across the three campuses. The university overall employed 2,814 faculty members in the fall of 2015.
KU is home to the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics, the Beach Center on Disability, the Lied Center of Kansas, and radio stations KJHK, 90.7 FM, and KANU, 91.5 FM. The university hosts several museums, including the University of Kansas Natural History Museum and the Spencer Museum of Art. The libraries of the University include Watson Library,[Kenneth Spencer Research Library, the Murphy Art and Architecture Library, Thomas Gorton Music & Dance Library, and Anschutz Library. Of athletic note, the university is home to Allen Fieldhouse, heralded as one of the greatest basketball arenas in the world, and David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium, the eighth oldest college football stadium in the country.
University of Kansas
1450 Jayhawk Blvd., Lawrence, KS 66045
©Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated March 2023.
Bleeding Kansas & the Missouri Border War
Lawrence, Kansas – From Ashes to Immortality
Blackmar, Frank W.; Kansas: A Cyclopedia of State History, Vol I; Standard Publishing Company, Chicago, IL 1912.
Cutler, William G; History of Kansas; A. T. Andreas, Chicago, IL, 1883.