An 1819 Start in a Frontier Town
The University of Cincinnati traces its beginnings back two centuries to the year 1819.
While today, UC is considered a world-renowned research institution with more than 44,000 students on multiple campuses, its genesis — not surprisingly — was far more humble.
Historians credit a pair of pioneer institutions as representing UC’s origins, both of which got their start in January of 1819. The first is that of the Medical College of Ohio, a precursor to what would become the UC College of Medicine. The second — chartered three days later — was a general academic institution called the Cincinnati College.
It is important to note that both of these institutions (and others) would ultimately merge with the municipal university chartered as the University of Cincinnati in 1870. As a result of the city university absorbing these independent start-ups, the leaders of the larger institution also chose to absorb their 1819 founding date, though both predated UC proper by a half century. Knowing that history, however, helps explain an oft-confused bit of lore over UC’s age, a story only muddled further by architectural crests on campus buildings to this day that proclaim an 1870 beginning.
Still, the official university seal boasts 1819, so we begin two centuries ago by looking more closely at the people and circumstances that shaped the early history of those institutions that would ultimately integrate into UC as we know it today.
Daniel Drake — UC's 'Frontier Leonardo'
Both the Medical College of Ohio and Cincinnati College were heavily influenced by a single man, a physician named Daniel Drake. Drake was born in New Jersey in 1785 and became a child of the frontier when his improverished parents headed west in pursuit of a better life when he was 3 years old. The Drakes, a family of farmhands, settled in Mays Lick, Kentucky, where young Daniel helped work the farm until age 15.
In 1801, Drake’s father — determined to have at least one educated child — sent his teenage son 70 miles north to Fort Washington (a year before it became Cincinnati) to apprentice with Dr. William Goforth, the city’s first physician. Goforth, impressed with his protoge, granted Drake a formal diploma to practice medicine in 1805.
The young doc was dispatched to Philadelphia to continue his formal medical studies before returning to Cincinnati to take over Goforth’s practice in 1807. The city was just five years old by then, yet the population in the frontier river town had surpassed a thousand people, many of them having made their way to its banks aboard flatboats and rafts.
Drake is aptly described as a “frontier Leonardo.” One historian credited him as a “physician, surgeon, scientist, poet, professor, medical administrator, historian, geographer, cultural patron, political activist, businessman, booster and gadfly.”
By the time he was 30 (or about 1815) Drake had published books on the culture of the West, completed statistical studies of Cincinnati and fell in love with the idea of establishing a medical college in the city.
As a result of his efforts, the state of Ohio issued a charter for the Medical College of Ohio in January of 1819, just three days prior to also issuing a charter for the Cincinnati College.
Cincinnati College was a sister institution to the Lancaster Seminary, a private high school, so the two institutions shared space at Fourth and Walnut streets in downtown Cincinnati. The Rev. Elijah Slack, a chemist, was named the first president of the college and fielded many complaints from citizens who griped about university students loitering, drinking and spitting tobacco juice on the college steps. Cincinnati College enjoyed some success its first few years and even graduated a few classes, but instruction ceased in 1825 in part due to a fire in the building.
Drake’s medical school, on the other hand, started classes in 1820, and he began an effort to bring some of the finest doctors in the country to Cincinnati to provide med students with professional perspectives on the field. He also established the Commercial Hospital and Lunatic Asylum to serve the city and provide students exposure to clinical experience. Drake served as president of the Medical College of Ohio until 1822, but he often clashed with his faculty, and they voted to oust him as president after just two years at the helm.
Several years later he returned to Cincinnati to start the Miami Medical College, which then merged with his old college. But in 1832, he was removed once more. And within a few years, he had formed a medical department in a revived version of the old Cincinnati College, which was reborn thanks to an affiliation with an area law school.
Unable to compete with the very school he founded, the medical department of Cincinnati College collapsed in 1839, and Drake ultimately returned to the faculty at the Medical College of Ohio for two additional stints before his death in 1852.
Still carrying the torch for higher education in the city, the Cincinnati College recruited the Rev. William Holmes McGuffey from nearby Miami University to become its new president in 1836.
McGuffey had gained renown as the author of the McGuffey Eclectic Readers, which were used to educate millions of grade school children worldwide over the better part of the next century. The Readers included stories, essays, poems and speeches excerpted from English and American writers and politicians including John Milton, Lord Byron and Daniel Webster.
In Cincinnati, McGuffey was noted for his compelling lectures on the scriptures and moral philosophy. His talks, history records, became so popular that people who could not fit into his crowded lecture room listened through holes cut in the floor of the room above.
With Cincinnati’s population exploding, several other specialized colleges also cropped up in the city including the Ohio Mechanics Institute in 1828, the Cincinnati Observatory in 1843, the Cincinnati College of Pharmacy in 1850, the Conservatory of Music in 1867 and the College of Music in 1878.
All of these schools would eventually coalesce as parts of the modern University of Cincinnati. But it would take a common location and funding to begin to unify the institution.
Enter Charles McMicken. No other development in the city’s higher-education history may be as significant as the death of McMicken in 1858.
One man's legacy sets a city's university in motion
Charles McMicken, often considered the founder of the university, was born in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, on Nov. 23, 1782. At age 21, he ventured to Cincinnati on horseback in 1803 — the same year Ohio became a state — and after establishing himself as a successful flatboat trader, built a fortune in flour, cotton, sugar and real estate. The successful merchant split time between New Orleans and Cincinnati and is said to have become wealthy around 1837 by shipping cotton. He ultimately would own land in Texas, Missouri, Kentucky, Illinois and Louisiana — plus several properties in Cincinnati totalling more than a half million dollars.
In 1840 McMicken purchased the homestead on what was then Hamilton Road (today it is McMicken Avenue) about a mile south of today’s campus on a narrow, steep hillside that overlooked Cincinnati.
One account in an 1896 Cincinnatian yearbook recalls McMicken's character as the following:
“He was a man of strong mind and memory, reserved in manner and expression. In his habits he was temperate, and in his business affairs methodical. He was self-reliant, possessed excellent business qualifications, and in his multiplied deeds of charity showed no ostentation.”
McMicken died in in the spring of 1858 of pneumonia. The 76-year-old had become ill while traveling by boat from New Orleans to Cincinnati and ultimately passed away at home.
Upon his death, the city learned of what McMicken referred to as the “wish of my heart” when he bequeathed nearly $1 million (mostly in real estate) to the city of Cincinnati to found a university. The businessman went as far as spelling out in his will that the upper six acres of his land were to be developed for a college for boys, and the lower few acres would be used for a college for girls. Beyond his campus planning desires, he also stipulated that the “Holy Bible of the Protestant version” would be used as a book of instruction, and if funds allowed for it, opportunities would be given to area orphans.
Despite McMicken's will and his wishes, the university he envisioned never actually came to fruition. In fact, any progress at all toward using his estate to educate area youth took more than a decade.
Complicating matters, several of his nieces and nephews contested their uncle’s will, as did the state of Louisiana, which claimed the city of Cincinnati could not take ownership of McMicken’s land there. The matter reached the United States Supreme Court, which ruled in Cincinnati’s favor, but not until 1861 when the Civil War further delayed any progress.
It wasn’t until January of 1869, nearly 11 years after McMicken’s death, that the McMicken School of Drawing and Design opened on his property. Not long after McMicken University finally took hold, however, its anchor, the design school, was transferred to what would become the Art Academy of Cincinnati.
Once again, McMicken's dream appeared to be destined for failure. Records indicate the board of directors of McMicken University questioned if enough funds remained to build up and maintain a university, especially considering the depleted condition of the grounds.
Desperate for a solution, local leaders called together the trustees of the various educational ventures in the city including Cincinnati College, the Woodward and Hughes high schools, the Ohio Mechanics Institute and McMicken University.
What emerged was a plan to combine capital and finally create a "real university." Ultimately, Cincinnati City Council got behind the idea as did the Ohio General Assembly, when it approved a charter (and authorized a tax levy) for the University of Cincinnati in 1870.
Classes were initially held in the Woodward High School building, but not until 1873. The next year, classes moved to an area intermediate school, and in 1875, students finally met at the McMicken estate on Clifton Avenue when the much awaited McMicken Hall opened. The young city university held its first commencement in 1878. While only eight graduated that summer, the school included 128 students who were pursuing one of three bachelor degrees — arts, science and civil engineering.
While UC used the McMicken homestead grounds for its academics over the next two decades, it became increasingly clear that the narrow strip of land and rather soot-filled and noisy industrial neighborhood was not suitable to a growing university.
The city university’s first actual president was Jacob Cox, a decorated Civil War general who had been governor of Ohio, congressman and dean of the Cincinnati Law School. Not long after taking office, Cox saw the university through a catastrophic incident in 1885 when McMicken Hall was nearly gutted by fire and classes were moved to Hebrew Union College for the rest of the academic year.
He also pushed to incorporate several small colleges in town into UC, and it was Cox, who advocated for moving the university further up the hill to Burnet Woods. A few months after Cox's resignation in 1889, the city set aside nearly 44 acres in Burnet Woods for the university.
Next came a five-year court battle between the city and the heirs of Chrarles McMicken, who argued that Cincinnati violated the will by moving the university off McMicken property. Ultimately, the Ohio Supreme Court sided with the city, and the stage was set for UC's move to Burnet Woods, its present location.
By the time UC moved to the university's present campus, UC had not only gained room to grow, it had gained new and important affiliations with higher education institutions, some of which would become cornerstone academic programs of the school's future.
Among them were the Medical College of Ohio, the Ohio Mechanics Institute, the Cincinnati College of Pharmacy, the Cincinnati Observatory and the Cincinnati College of Dental Surgery. UC established a formal Law Department in 1896 and appointed William Howard Taft as dean. Taft served in the role until 1900 and would later become both president of the United States and Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Taft was instrumental in merging UC's Law Department with his alma mater, the Cincinnati Law School, in 1897.
With UC's relocation also came an emphasis on campus culture, as is evident by the below imagery first published in the school's 1890s Cincinnatian annuals.
The university's earliest published images, many of them exceeding 120 years in age, also illustrate the importance of athletics at UC. Long before even the name Bearcats arrived at UC (1914) the University of Cincinnati was competing at the highest collegiate levels.
By the close of the 19th century at the University of Cincinnati, the institution had evolved greatly in every area — from the campus itself to the academic achievements to the very makeup of UC's culture. It was a university poised for great things in the 1900s, and it was all due to the resiliency of its pioneers, its leaders and its people and their steadfast attitude to keep climbing even when it meant trudging uphill.
Resources & Credits
- "Schools of Cincinnati" (1902) — John Shotwell
- "The University of Cincinnati" (1995) — Kevin Grace and Greg Hand
- "The University of Cincinnati" (1963) — Reginald C. McGrane
- "The Campus Guide: Univesity of Cincinnati" (2001) — Paul Bennett
- "The University of Cincinnati, Architectural Transformation: Tradition and Innovation" (2007) — Robert Flischel and Kevin Grace
- "Campus Heritage Plan" (2008) — John Milner Associates
- "The Cincinnatian" (1894 - 1899 editions) — University of Cincinnati Student Editors
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- Design elements: Angela Klocke
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