Research assistance provided by staff members at UW–Madison Archives

The 1800s

When the first students at UW–Madison started classes in 1849, they were already experiencing a liberal arts education. Like at Harvard and Yale, the University’s early students focused primarily on ancient Latin and Greek.

Early on, it was just Chancellor John Lathrop and one additional faculty member, J.W. Sterling, on staff. Although never a chancellor, Sterling is considered “the Father of the University.” He began taking meteorological observations as early as 1853. The department, now known as Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, was not formally founded until 1948.

In 1849, the University’s Board of Regents deemed it “expedient and important” to form a “cabinet of natural history.” This cabinet is now the Wisconsin State Herbarium led by the Department of Botany.

Plant specimen on paper at the Wisconsin State Herbarium.
Wisconsin State Herbarium Photo: Bryce Richter

Founded in 1850, the Department of Classical and Ancient Near Eastern Studies was one of the first academic departments established at the University.

South Hall, which is the current administrative home of the College of Letters & Science, was built in 1855. It was one of the first dormitories to open on campus — second only to its twin, North Hall, which opened in 1851 and now houses the Department of Political Science. At the time, faculty and staff paid $3 per person per week for room and board — for students it was just $2. The College would take over the building in 1904, but before that it spent time as a pharmacy school and was home to the Normal Department, which became the first department at the University to admit women in 1863.

Historic image of Professor of Chemistry and Natural History Ezra Carr.
Ezra Carr

In 1856, UW–Madison offered its first-ever geology class, which was taught by Professor of Chemistry and Natural History Ezra Carr. John Muir (x1863), the man known today as “Father of the National Parks,” took one of Carr’s classes, noting that Carr’s demonstration experiments rarely worked. The Department of Geology and Mineralogy was established in 1878.

In the fall of 1863, 119 of 229 University students were women, according to the Department of History.

In 1867, the first historian joined UW–Madison’s faculty. Professor of Ancient Languages and History William Frances Allen researched ancient and medieval history as well as slave songs in the United States. At the time, there were only a handful of history positions in academics.

John Bascom became president of the University in 1874. Before his start at UW–Madison, he worked as a philosophy professor at Williams College. His daughter, Florence Bascom, paved the way for women around the country and graduated with the second master’s degree issued by the geology department in 1887.

First College of Letters & Science Dean Edward A. Birge.
Edward A. Birge

Edward A. Birge would eventually become the first dean for the College of Letters & Science, but he began as an instructor of natural history in 1875. He became a full professor in 1879. His promotion to dean came in 1891, and he served in the role for 27 years. In 1896, he launched a study on zooplankton in Lake Mendota, making it the “birthplace” of limnology in North America. In 1918, he was promoted yet again — this time to president of the University.

Astronomy students still marvel at the night sky by looking through the vintage telescope at Washburn Observatory. The observatory was a gift to the University from former Wisconsin Governor Cadwallader Washburn. He made sure the lens was at least as big as a rival telescope at Harvard (15 inches). Construction started in 1878 and was completed in 1881. The 15.6-inch lens of the telescope put UW–Madison on the map as a research powerhouse.

The iconic red brick building that sits at the bottom of Bascom Hill is actually the second Science Hall. The original sandstone-faced wooden structure burned down in 1884. The current Science Hall was erected in the exact same spot in 1887, and it was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1993. The iron staircase is the original from when the building opened in 1888. For several decades, the School of Medicine, which was founded in 1907, was housed in the building.

Exterior shot of the red-brick building Science Hall.
Science Hall Photo: Bryce Richter

The Department of Psychology is one of the three oldest continuously functioning psychology departments in the entire country. UW–Madison’s department was founded in 1888, but there is dispute between the universities of Wisconsin, Indiana and Pennsylvania about which is the oldest. The founding faculty were hired at a starting annual salary of $2,000.

In 1888, the University offered its first course in landscape architecture.

The Wisconsin legislature formally established four new colleges in 1889. These included the colleges of mechanics and engineering, agriculture, law and, of course, the College of Letters & Science.

The first PhD in history was awarded to Kate Everest (Levi) in 1893. Not only was her degree one of the first awarded by the University, but the first awarded to a woman.

The 1900s

“Law and the Press” was the first journalism class offered at the University. Willard Grosvenor Bleyer was the professor, and he taught 25 students in 1905. He would later go on to found the Department of Journalism in 1912. The department was eventually rebranded as the School of Journalism in 1927, tacking on the “and Mass Communication” in 1970. Despite the many name changes, the school has always been endearingly nicknamed the “J–School.” The School of Journalism and Mass Communication resides in Vilas Communication Hall, which opened in 1972. The building is named after former Board of Regents member and U.S. Senator William Freeman Vilas. He was also a member of the cabinet of U.S. President Grover Cleveland, serving as Postmaster General and later as Secretary of the Interior. Today, the Department of Communication Arts also resides in Vilas. The department was first called the Department of Public Speaking. In 1920, it became the Department of Speech before becoming what we know today.

Exterior shot of Vilas Hall.
Vilas Hall Photo: Bryce Richter

Established in 1917, the L.R. Ingersoll Physics Museum is one of the first of its kind. It is the oldest hands-on science museum in North America — second oldest in the world. It was the first to let visitors touch and tinker with exhibits.

University faculty published weekly pamphlets and articles in local papers about World War I during the 1917-1918 academic year. These pamphlets were combined and published in 1918 in a volume entitled War Book of the University of Wisconsin: Papers on the Causes and Issues of the War. Contributors to this work include former L&S Dean George Sellery and Professor Edward Burr Van Vleck.

Historic black and white image of Helen Constance White at typewriter.
Helen Constance White Photo by David Sandell

UW–Madison’s bustling 24-hour College Library is located inside a b­­­­uilding called Helen C. White Hall. The name is a tribute to Helen Constance White (Ph.D. 1924), whose lasting legacy at the University started when she joined the staff as an English professor in 1919. She was possibly the first woman to earn a doctorate in the College of Letters & Science in 1924, and she continued her trailblazing ways by becoming the first woman to be a full L&S professor in 1936 and the first woman to chair the English department in 1955. She taught at the University until she died in 1967. The University honored her legacy by naming the building after her in 1970. The original construction plan for Helen C. White Hall included a pedestrian bridge over Observatory Drive onto Bascom Hill, but the bridge was never built. Still today, you can see the third-floor balcony that was meant to connect to the bridge.­

The education department was established in 1919 within the College of Letters & Science. However, it separated from the College in 1930 to form the School of Education.

The first person to ever receive a PhD in communicative disorders received her degree in 1922 from the College of Letters & Science. Sara Stinchfield Hawk went on to co-found the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association in 1925.

In 1925, students in the College of Letters & Science were expected to complete a gym class. Physical education was a requisite to graduate with an L&S degree.

At one point, the social work program was part of the Department of Economics. Professor Helen I. Clarke was recruited to lead the program in the department. From 1926 to 1945, Clarke taught every single social work course at the University.

In 1927, philosopher Alexander Meiklejohn founded the Experimental College. It was coined a “college within a college.” It later evolved into the Integrated Liberal Studies program, which was established in 1948. At the time of its founding, faculty and students of the college all resided in Adams-Tripp Residence Hall.

Although taught at the University as early as 1897, it wasn’t until 1929 that anthropology became separate from the Department of Economics. This was prompted by the creation of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology.

In the 1940s, Aldo Leopold — the “father of wildlife management” and a former professor — initiated the Conservation Biology major. He also founded the state’s Department of Wildlife Management in 1933.

Uncle Sam pointing figure.
Uncle Sam

The German department — now known as the Department of German, Nordic, and Slavic+ — assisted with military efforts during World War II by teaching enlisted military personnel to understand and speak German beginning in 1943. Four members of the faculty were assigned to this project full time. Moreover, three chemists from the Department of Chemistry were researchers for the Manhattan Project, which produced the world’s first nuclear weapons. They were Joseph O. Hirschfelder, John E. Willard and Farrington Daniels.

The Department of Social Work is a prime example of the Wisconsin Idea at work. It was established in 1946 by the Board of Regents after widespread interest around the state. A unique feature of the original instruction was that students were required to spend 15–20 hours a week doing supervised field work. The school was renamed as the Sandra Rosenbaum School of Social Work in 2020.

The natural sciences were added to L&S in 1946, making it a “complete study of liberal arts and science.”

In the 1950s and early 1960s before copy machines became available, all exams and class handouts were mimeographed by a special staff in the basement of Bascom Hall. Therefore, the original copy of all exams had to be submitted at least two weeks before the exams took place. One year, a number of philosophy students got into the mimeograph room, stole some final exams and sold them to students in the relevant classes.

Historic black and white image of Ada Deer.
Ada Deer

In 1957, Ada Deer became the first member of the Menominee Tribe to graduate from UW–Madison. She graduated with a degree in social work and would go on to serve as director of what is now called the American Indian & Indigenous Studies Program from 2000 to 2007. She was a fierce advocate for Native American rights. In a Washington Post interview, she famously said, “You don’t have to collapse just because there’s a federal law in your way. Change it!” The American Indian & Indigenous Studies Program was transferred from the School of Education to the College of Letters and Science in 1988.

In 1958, a group of students petitioned for the University to establish an honors program within the College. It came to fruition in 1960.

In 1968, the University’s Space Astronomy Laboratory constructed the world’s first observatory in space — the Orbiting Astronomical Observatory. This development gave the world the first sustained view of the cosmos from outer space. The observatory set the stage for the Hubble Space Telescope, which was launched in 1990 and remains in orbit today.

Historic color image of Hasler Laboratory of Limnology dock on Lake Mendota.
Hasler Laboratory of Limnology dock

The director of the “Limnology Laboratory” in the 1960s was the scientist Arthur Hasler. Under the leadership of John Magnuson, the laboratory officially became the Center for Limnology in the early 1980s. Significant research from the center includes but is not limited to a four-decade dataset on Lake Mendota and 10 other Wisconsin lakes, and fieldwork on freshwater systems in all seven continents. The current Hasler Laboratory of Limnology dock on Lake Mendota is the original dock that was there when the building opened in 1963.

Although officially founded in 1978, creative writing has been around since the beginning of the Department of English at the University. Notable alumni and faculty of the creative writing program include Joyce Carol Oates, Lorrie Moore, Danez Smith and Eudora Welty.

In 1993, all students received email addresses from the University.

In 1996, the College was in the beginning stages of determining the feasibility of providing computer equipment in major teaching buildings for instructors. At this time, most if not all L&S departments had created a department website.

I­­­­­n the fall of 1998, for the first time all incoming L&S students were required to take a foreign language placement exam for the College’s language requirement.

The 2000s

Graduate student Andrew Schoen works with a robotic arm apart of Computer Science research.
Graduate student Andrew Schoen works with a robotic arm apart of Computer Science research Photo: Bryce Richter

In the last 10 years, the Department of Computer Sciences has grown by 811%. This was a large factor in the creation of the School of Computer, Data & Information Sciences (CDIS) in 2019 that includes the Departments of Computer Sciences, Statistics and the Information School. In fall of 2020, the Data Science major (housed within CDIS) was established and quickly became the fastest growing major at the University. In just eight months, 425 students declared the major. A new undergraduate major launched within the Information Science in 2022 already has 168 students. The Department of Computer Sciences offers the most majors within their department. The department is also home to the HTCondor, which was announced by the University in 1988. This advanced workload management system turned what would have been life’s work into a year-long project. From psychology to space exploration and botany, many L&S researchers use this technology in innovative ways.

Key players in the 2012 discovery of the Higgs boson, a new particle, were a part of the Department of Physics.

John Karl Scholtz served as dean of the College from 2013-2019, prior to current Dean Eric Wilcots. He left the role to become provost of the University until 2023. Scholtz now serves as the president of the University of Oregon.

The Department of Physics is the first department in the United States to offer a Master of Science degree in quantum computing. The first class matriculated in fall 2019.

Eric Wilcots joined the faculty of the Department of Astronomy in 1995. When he became dean of the College in 2020 after serving as interim dean for a year, he identified four critical priorities: to enhance the world-class undergraduate experience; expand research excellence; advance diversity, equity and inclusion efforts; and create state-of-the-art teaching and learning environments.

In 2023, the Chican@ & Latin@ Studies Program started offering a major. The program is one of many spawned by student activism. Other examples include the Department of African American Studies, the Asian American Studies Program, the Department of Gender & Women’s Studies, and more.

UW–Madison Latinx community celebrate start of Latinx Heritage Month holding flag of Mexico.
UW–Madison Latinx community celebrate start of Latinx Heritage Month holding flag of Mexico Photo: Bryce Richter

Influential L&S Badgers

  • In 1887, Frank Lloyd Wright left the University without completing a degree. However, he later returned to receive an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts in 1955.
  • In 1892, Charles Van Hise was the first student to receive a PhD from the University. He studied geology.
  • Edwin Witte, known as the “Father of Social Security,” received his doctorate from the Department of Economics in 1927. He later went on to become a professor.
  • Dorothy Rice, who was an integral contributor to the creation of Medicare, received her PhD in economics in 1941.
  • Joan Hinton, a physics graduate student, was recruited for the Manhattan Project, which developed the nuclear bomb. She was one of a few women working on the project and observed the Trinity test, the first detonation of the bomb. She graduated from the University in 1944.
  • Carl Djerassi, the father of the birth control pill, earned his PhD in organic chemistry from UW–Madison in 1945.
  • Lorraine Hansberry, who wrote A Raisin in the Sun and was the first Black female author to have her work performed on Broadway, studied at UW–Madison briefly in 1948.
  • Steve Ambrose, one of the best-known American historians, earned his bachelor’s degree in 1957 and later his PhD in history in 1963.
  • Kay Koplovitz, the founder and first CEO of the USA Network, is a 1967 graduate of UW–Madison. She studied communications and currently serves on the College’s Board of Visitors.
  • Vice President Kamala Harris’ father was a faculty member of the Department of Economics. Donald J. Harris was an associate professor at the University from 1968-1972.
  • Lynne Cheney, the former second lady of the United States, received her PhD in English from UW–Madison in 1970.
  • André De Shields, the mega-successful Broadway actor who won a 2021 Tony Award for his performance in Hadestown, transferred to UW–Madison and earned his BA in English in 1970.
  • David M. Jacobs, a prominent theorist in the study of alleged alien abductions, earned his PhD in intellectual history from the University in 1973.
  • Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers graduated with a bachelor’s degree in zoology from UW–Madison in 1973.
  • Linda Thomas Greenfield, the current U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, earned her Master of Public Administration degree at UW–Madison in 1975.
  • Author Bell Hooks graduated with a master’s degree in English literature in 1976.
  • Laurel Clark, an astronaut who died in the Columbia disaster, earned a degree in zoology from UW–Madison in 1983.
  • Kelly Kahl, the former president of CBS Entertainment, is a 1989 graduate of UW–Madison. He studied communications.
  • Erin Lee Carr, a documentary filmmaker, is a 2010 graduate of UW–Madison. She studied communication arts.

L&S Today

Five fast facts about the College in its 134th year

  1. Today the College of Letters & Science is the largest unit on campus, graduating nearly 4,800 students each year and teaching 65 percent of all credit hours offered at UW–Madison.
  2. L&S offers 84 majors. Four of the top five most popular majors at the University are in L&S — computer sciences, economics, psychology and biology (shared with CALS).
  3. There are more than 211,545 L&S alumni as of January 2023. That means the College accounts for 44.4% of UW–Madison alumni.
  4. Ten faculty or former students of the College of Letters & Science have received the Nobel Prize.
  5. There are four winners of the MacArthur “Genius Grant” with ties to L&S.

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