Bowdoin has come a long way since the first class of eight students matriculated in 1802. To read about a few of the highlights along the way, click on the bars in the timeline.
Pierre Baudouin, a Huguenot possibly from La Rochelle, France, immigrated to America in 1686. After a short stay in what is now South Portland, Maine, he arrived in Boston by 1690. There he became a successful merchant and ships' captain. After his death, his eldest son James anglicized "Baudouin" as "Bowdoin" (pronounced "Bo-dun"), the spelling that the American branch of the family, including his mother, Elizabeth (1643?-1720), also adopted.
Pierre's son James Bowdoin I became one of the wealthiest merchants in Massachusetts. (The three James Bowdoins did not use roman numerals in referring to themselves; they are used as a convenience by the College and historians).
James Bowdoin II is elected governor of Massachusetts in the difficult years just after the Revolution. A man of the Enlightenment, he balances politics and business with wide-ranging scientific pursuits.
Bowdoin College is chartered by the General Court of Massachusetts, meeting in the Old State House in Boston – the District of Maine still being part of the Commonwealth. Governor Samuel Adams signs the bill.
After selling land given by Bowdoin to raise funds, the College begins classes with eight students, in an attempt to “make the desert bloom.” President Joseph McKeen urges them to work “for the common good,” a phrase which would come to epitomize the College’s sense of mission. The new collegians sign the Matriculation Book, as members of every new class at the College do to this day. The faculty, staff, and students work, study, and live in Massachusetts Hall, which is still the heart of the Bowdoin campus. The youngest, 13-year-old George Thorndike, finds and plants an acorn, which would grow into the Thorndike Oak, a campus landmark for generations.
James Bowdoin III, an agrarian reformer and art collector, decides to endow the new college in Maine in honor of his father. Having no children, he leaves the infant institution an extraordinary library and his collections of Old Master paintings and drawings, minerals, and scientific equipment.
Eight students meet and form the Philomathian Society, a name they quickly change to the Peucinian Society and adopt the motto Pinos loquentes semper habemus (We always have the whispering pines). Essentially a literary and debating society with their own library, the Peucinians are challenged in 1808 by the competing Athenaean Society, and intense rivalry between the two groups ensues throughout much of the 19th century until both are eclipsed by the rise of Greek letter fraternities.
Meeting amid the Bowdoin Pines, seven students are awarded degrees in the College’s first Commencement exercises.
The College’s art collection is on public view in a room in Massachusetts Hall, making Bowdoin’s gallery one of the country’s first art museums.
Coastal residents and collegians alike experience panic at news of British naval activity in local waters during the War of 1812. Mainers remember the burning of Falmouth (today’s Portland) by the British in the Revolution.
Parker Cleaveland’s Elementary Treatise on Mineralogy and Geology, the first work on the subject in America, brings international attention to the young college and praise from Goethe in Germany for its author. Cleaveland teaches all the sciences and lectures in the Medical School in the course of his 53 years on the faculty. His home on Federal Street is now Bowdoin’s official presidential residence.
As part of the Missouri Compromise, Maine achieves statehood—as a free state to balance the new slave state of Missouri.
The Medical School of Maine begins operation as an institution separate from Bowdoin College but located on its campus and under the administration of Bowdoin's governing boards. Until its closure in 1921 for lack of funds, the school trains more than 2,000 doctors, many of them practicing in small towns and remote regions of Maine.
Two of the best-known American writers of the 19th century, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, graduate in Bowdoin’s celebrated Class of 1825. It was only in later life, however, that they became close friends. After traveling in Europe, Longfellow returns to Bowdoin in 1829 as professor of modern languages and librarian.
John Brown Russwurm becomes the third African American to graduate from a U.S. college or university. He goes on to edit Freedom’s Journal and emigrates to Liberia, where he governs the Maryland Colony, 1836–1851. In 1978 the College names its Afro-American Center in his honor.
Bowdoin professor Samuel Newman’s A Practical System of Rhetoric—a prototype of “how to write” books – appears in the first of its 65 editions, becoming one of the most widely used American college texts.
Bowdoin professor Thomas Upham publishes a pioneering textbook in the emerging field of psychology. Titled Elements of Mental Philosophy, it eventually reaches 57 editions. Upham, also a prolific poet, is among the first Americans to study abnormal psychology.
Hawthorne publishes his first novel, Fanshawe, a romance set at a college resembling Bowdoin. He later disavows the book. A descendant of a Salem witch trial judge, Hawthorne is fascinated by New England’s past, perhaps best conveyed in his great novel of Puritanism, The Scarlet Letter (1852).
Outside the traditional curriculum, Bowdoin’s students create a rich “extra-curriculum” of their own, including late-night festivities and “Yagger Wars,” a town-gown rivalry with the younger residents of Brunswick.
Mr. Justice Story finds in Allen v. McKeen that Bowdoin is a private, not a public, corporation, and the State Legislature has no right to interfere in its affairs.
The Crash of ’37 almost wipes out the College’s endowment, setting the stage for years of financial stress.
Jonathan Cilley (Class of 1825) meets the dubious fate of being the last American congressman to be shot to death in a duel.
Construction begins on architect Richard Upjohn’s richly decorated Bowdoin Chapel, which introduces the Romanesque Revival style to a part of the world still accustomed to white wooden churches. Always short of funds, the 19th-century College looks increasingly to the Congregational Churches of New England for support. But Bowdoin remains a secular institution, with no official tie to any denomination. Construction of the Chapel is completed in 1855.
U.S. Senator John Parker Hale of New Hampshire (Class of 1827) successfully defends the antislavery leaders who had rescued the runaway slave Shadrach in Boston; he would later defend the abolitionists who tried to prevent the return of Anthony Burns to his owner. A Democrat turned Free Soiler, he runs unsuccessfully for president against Franklin Pierce.
Franklin Pierce (Class of 1824) is elected 14th president of the United States. A pro-slavery northern Democrat, he had commissioned Nathaniel Hawthorne to write his campaign biography and rewarded him with the lucrative U.S. consulship in Liverpool, England.
Seated one Sunday in First Parish Church, Harriet Beecher Stowe is inspired by the thought of an elderly slave’s martyrdom to write her bestselling abolitionist novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, one of the most influential books of all time. She finds the quiet in which to write in the Appleton Hall study used by her husband, Calvin Stowe (Class of 1824), professor of theology.
On a tour “Down East,” Mississippi senator and former secretary of war Jefferson Davis is awarded a Bowdoin honorary degree, a courtesy often paid to visiting dignitaries. Three years later, Davis would be president of the rebellious Confederacy, but—despite political pressure—the College never rescinds the honor.
Two collegiate boat clubs compete on the Androscoggin River, marking the beginning of organized athletics at the College.
Juniors beat seniors in Bowdoin’s first recorded baseball game, played on the Delta.
As the Civil War begins, Bowdoin students and alumni enthusiastically rally around the flag. By some reckonings Bowdoin has proportionately more graduates under arms than any other New England college. At least 18 alumni fight for the Confederacy.
In Boston, abolitionist Governor John Albion Andrew (Class of 1837) forms the Union’s first black regiment, the celebrated 54th Massachusetts, the subject of the film Glory.
Commanding the 20th Maine, Colonel Joshua Chamberlain (Class of 1852) holds Little Round Top on the second day of the battle of Gettysburg, thereby preventing the collapse of the left flank of the entire Union line. After 24 major battles and six serious wounds, he ends the war as a major general and is chosen to receive the Confederate surrender at Appomattox on April 12, 1865.
General Oliver Otis Howard (Class of 1850) becomes head of the new Freedmen’s Bureau, an effort to help former slaves become farmers in the South. He co-founds Howard University in the District of Columbia and serves as its president from 1869 to 1874.
U.S. Senator William Pitt Fessenden of Maine (Class of 1823) casts the vote that saves President Andrew Johnson from conviction in his impeachment trial. As Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury, Fessenden had successfully financed the Union war effort.
Gymnast Dudley Sargent (Class of 1875) becomes the College’s first director of athletics, championing the new movement for “muscular Christianity.”
After four one year terms as governor of Maine, General Chamberlain accepts the Bowdoin presidency. Worried by the lack of preparedness of young men who had volunteered in the Civil War, he experiments with a military drill at Bowdoin—but in 1874 the students revolt and refuse to drill!
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The biweekly Bowdoin Orient begins its long run as the oldest continuously published collegiate newspaper in the country.
Longfellow, arguably the most widely read poet of his time in the English-speaking world, returns to campus for his 50th Reunion, for which he reads his poem Morituri Salutamus, an eloquent reflection on aging and creativity.
Construction of Memorial Hall is completed. Begun in 1867, the hall is built to commemorate the College’s 288 known Civil War veterans on the Union side.
William DeWitt Hyde becomes Bowdoin’s seventh president and, through a series of widely read advice books for young men, helps create an image of the American college as place to mold character and strengthen the body as well as train the mind. His “Offer of the College” becomes a foundational text for Bowdoin.
Thomas Brackett Reed (Class of 1860) becomes the most powerful and autocratic speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in its history. Known as “Czar Reed,” the Portland lawyer is feared for his slashing wit and admired for his honesty, unusual in a Gilded Age politician. At one point, three of the highest officers of government are Bowdoin alumni—Speaker Reed, Chief Justice Melville Fuller (1853), and Senate President pro tem William Frye (Class of 1850).
During the 1880s and 1890s, athletics (especially intercollegiate football) and the increasingly popular “Greek letter” social fraternities absorb much of the attention of undergraduates. The Quad takes shape as new buildings form a central enclosed space, and a distinctly American male collegiate subculture is welcomed at Bowdoin, as at other institutions.
Harriet and Mary Sophia Walker give an art building to Bowdoin in memory of their uncle. Designed by the firm of McKim, Mead and White, the neo-Renaissance Walker Art Building is considered the most handsome public building in Maine. The College’s commencements take place on its stage-like terrace. Between 2005 and 2007, the museum was skillfully renovated and enlarged by the architects Machado & Silvetti Associates of Boston.
Robert E. Peary (Class of 1877) reaches the North Pole stirring public enthusiasm for Arctic exploration. Accompanying him on his most famous trek are his African American assistant Matthew Henson, four Inuit, and a college fraternity banner. Donald MacMillan (Class of 1898), who would become a great explorer of the Far North in his own right, is also a member of the expedition. The two alumni are commemorated in the College’s Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum.
The College adopts the polar bear as its mascot. Five years later, Donald MacMillan presented the school with a stuffed and mounted adult polar bear that he captured in Northern Greenland in 1916. In presenting the bear to the college, he proclaimed, "May his spirit be the Guardian Spirit not only of Bowdoin Athletics, but of every Bowdoin man [and woman]."
World War I turns the campus literally into an armed camp as Maine recruits are brought to Brunswick for training.
Kenneth C. M. Sills (Class of 1901) shepherds the College through two world wars and a depression during 35 years in office, earning a national reputation as “Sills of Bowdoin,” one of the legendary group of U.S. college presidents much sought after for advice on many issues of the day.
Frederic Tootell (Class of 1923) wins a gold medal for the hammer throw in the Paris Olympics. Four years later, his classmate Geoffrey Mason wins a gold in the bobsled event at the St. Moritz Winter Olympics.
The first issue of the Bowdoin Alumnus marks the new importance of the alumni body in the College’s governance and fundraising.
Although most students leave campus for the armed services, World War II brings a Navy radar school and an Army-Air Force weather unit to Bowdoin.
The College acquires the former Bath Street Primary School from the town of Brunswick. The building was renamed Rhodes Hall after three of the elementary school's students who later received Rhodes scholarships. Two, Robert P. T. Coffin and Edward B. Ham, were also Bowdoin graduates; the third was Brunswick native Allen S. Johnson. A complete list of Bowdoin’s Rhodes scholars is available here.
Alfred C. Kinsey (Class of 1916) publishes Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, a bestseller that makes his name a household word—but one that could not be spoken in many American households! In 1953 he follows it with Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, again based on thousands of case studies of how people actually behave, he explains, rather than how they are “supposed” to behave. He had gained his skill in taxonomy while studying gall wasps as an undergraduate in Bowdoin’s Searles Science Building.
Bowdoin joins three other "Little Ivies" in forming the New England Small College Athletic Conference, later joined by seven other institutions. The conference’s goal is to maintain the proper balance between sports and academics.
At 16 stories, Coles Tower—a residence hall and classroom building—becomes Maine’s tallest structure and a symbol of a new Bowdoin in which the sciences would play as large a role as the humanities. It is named for President James Stacy Coles, one of Bowdoin’s most energetic modernizers.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. visits the Bowdoin College Museum of Art to see its groundbreaking exhibition on African Americans in art and speaks at First Parish Church.
President Roger Howell, a historian of Britain’s 17th century civil wars, keeps the College open and functioning at the height of the Vietnam War student strike movement in the face of demands from both sides to close its doors.
Bowdoin welcomes its first fully coed entering class. Susan Jacobson becomes the first woman to earn a Bowdoin A.B. and to deliver a Commencement address.
Joan Benoit Samuelson (Class of 1979), of Freeport, Maine, wins the gold medal in the first women’s Olympic Marathon, in Los Angeles.
Bowdoin proves that “small is beautiful” with its innovative micro-scale chemistry curriculum, thanks to the innovative work of chemistry professors Dana Mayo and Samuel Butcher.
The college launches a campaign for capital improvements, faculty chairs, and financial aid. During the next seven years, academic buildings constructed or renovated included Druckenmiller, Cleaveland, and Searles halls, Memorial Hall with Pickard and Wish Theaters, Hawthorne Longfellow Library, the Coastal Studies Center, David Saul Smith Union, Watson Fitness Center, the Thorne dining complex, and Stowe, Howard, and Chamberlain residence halls.
An inclusive House System, designed to succeed the fraternity system as the focus of undergraduate social life, links first-year students with upperclass houses in a manner that enhances the residence experience of college.
Bowdoin begins the careful rebuilding of the Chapel towers. The restoration included mapping the location of each brick and returning it to its original position. Damaged stones were replaced with stones from the original quarry, and mortar was made with the sand used in the original construction. In May 2003, a time capsule containing two engraved silver plaques and other materials was discovered. The $6 million restoration was completed September 2004.
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Chapel Towers Restoration Completed
After over a year of intensive discussion among Bowdoin's faculty members, Bowdoin announces its first major curriculum reform in over two decades. The reform builds on the college's 200-year tradition of "educating leaders in all walks of life," while preparing students for a world of increasingly varied cultures, interests, resources, and power structures.
The required courses will reflect a sharpened examination of themes and issues vital to a liberal education for the 21st century. Courses will be designed to help students hone their written and analytical skills, deepen their aesthetic judgments, use varied forms of informational resources, and create multi-faceted solutions to complex problems.
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Bowdoin Announces Bold New Curriculum for Liberal Education
Bowdoin’s RoboCup team, the Northern Bites is founded. RoboCup is an international research and education initiative to promote research in artificial intelligence, robotics, computational perception and related fields. The Northern Bites initially compete in the four-legged league with Sony AIBOs, winning the world championship in 2007 and the U.S. Open in 2008. The team currently competes in the Standard Platform League using the two-legged Nao robots. Northern Bites placed second in the 2009 world championship.
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Northern Bites blog
The Bowdoin College Museum of Art opens following a $20.8 million renovation and expansion project which provides 63 percent more space than the original building while preserving the landmark structure, and increases the number of galleries from nine to fourteen.
After a $15-million renovation and preservation of the former Curtis Pool building, Studzinski Recital Hall, a new state-of-the-art music performance and practice facility that includes the stunning new 280-seat Kanbar Auditorium, opens.
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Bowdoin wins its first NCAA national championship. The Bowdoin College field hockey team completed the 7th perfect season in Division III history, capturing the NCAA Championship with a 4-3 victory over Middlebury. In 2008 Bowdoin wins the championship again, joining the College of New Jersey (1990-91, '95-'96), Cortland State (1993-94) and Salisbury University (2003-05) as the only schools to win repeat NCAA crowns in field hockey.
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Barack Obama draws on the Bowdoin community to staff his administration:
The college completes the largest fundraising campaign in its history. It raised $293.57 million, more than $43 million above the goal of $250 million, for financial aid, the academic program, and student life. Of the total raised, approximately $100 million will be used to ensure access to Bowdoin for low- and moderate-income students through financial aid. More than 17,000 donors made capital and annual gifts to Bowdoin's fundraising campaign.
For more information:
Bowdoin Campaign Website