The University of Pennsylvania dates its founding to 1740, when a prominent evangelist, George Whitefield, and others established an educational trust fund and began construction of a large school building at Fourth and Arch streets in Philadelphia. The building was designed as a charity school for the children of working-class Philadelphians and as a house of worship for Whitefield's followers. Foundations were laid, and the walls of the "New Building," as it was called, began to rise. The cost, however, was much greater than the available resources, and the project went unfinished for a decade.
In 1749, Benjamin Franklin –- printer, inventor and future founding father of the United States –- published his famous essay, Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth, circulated it among Philadelphia's leading citizens and organized 24 trustees to form an institution of higher education. Led by Franklin, they purchased the property of the New Building and assumed the responsibility of its educational trust. In 1751, Penn opened its doors to the children of the gentry and common people alike as the "Academy and Charitable School in the Province of Pennsylvania."
Franklin's educational aims –- to train young people for leadership in business, government and public service -– were innovative for the time. In the 1750s, the other Colonial American colleges educated young men for the Christian ministry, but Franklin's proposed program of study was much more like the modern liberal arts curriculum. His fellow trustees were unwilling to implement most of his ideas, and Penn's first provost, the Rev. Dr. William Smith, soon turned the curriculum back into traditional channels.
In subsequent years, Penn obtained a collegiate charter (1755), graduated its first class (1757), established the first medical school in the American colonies (1765) and became the first American institution of higher education to be named a university (1779). Then, in 1802, Penn expanded to a new campus on Ninth Street, between Market and Chestnut streets. By the 1860s, however, the University had outgrown the space, and in 1872 the trustees built a new campus in the street-car suburb of West Philadelphia.
More than 250 years after its founding, the University of Pennsylvania continues to achieve excellence in research and education. Among its many more recent "firsts," Penn developed ENIAC, the world's first electronic, large-scale, general-purpose digital computer.
In addition to ushering in new ideas, Penn has also welcomed countless leaders through its doors. Nine signers of the Declaration of Independence and 11 signers of the Constitution are associated with the University.
Since 1923, more than a dozen Penn scholars have been awarded the Nobel Prize. In 1994, Judith Rodin became the first woman to be inaugurated president of an Ivy League institution, and in 2004 Amy Gutmann became the first female Ivy League president to succeed another female.
Penn's heritage is likewise reflected in its landscape, where a vibrant, 302-acre, urban campus boasts more than 200 buildings and many notable landmarks, including Houston Hall, the nation's first student union; Franklin Field, the country's first double-decked college football stadium; and 165 research centers and institutes.
The University of Pennsylvania remains an eminent, world-class institution for the creation and dissemination of knowledge, serving as a model for colleges and universities throughout the world.
Additional information on the University of Pennsylvania's heritage is available at the University Archives.