The Founding of Tulane University

Tulane University is often cited as being founded in 1834 by seven young medical doctors and it is true that Tulane’s earliest roots lie in the school founded by these seven. However, the institution created then was quite different than what it would become just a few decades later, and vastly different from what it is today.

Founded in 1834 by seven medical doctors, The Medical College of Louisiana's mission was to train New Orleans doctors in the combat of cholera and yellow fever [1, 2]; two of the most deadly diseases which plagued the U.S. south during the 1800s. In 1847, the Louisiana state legislature added a law school to the college and renamed it the University of Louisiana. [2] The state legislature provided limited funding for the school, and with little enrollment, the young school nearly failed. The school’s first president, Dr. Francis Lister Hawks, was selected partially because he would be able to fulfill his duties as president while maintaining an income of his own, as there would be no salary allotted to his position due to lack of funding. [2]

In 1851, an academic school was added to the university. Like the previous two branches of the university, the academic branch also suffered from lack of funding and enrollment in its infancy. The branch nearly collapsed entirely under the weight of a yellow fever epidemic which broke out in the city in 1853, killing 7,849. [3] The university temporarily closed in 1861 due to the many complications posed by the Civil War. It reopened again in 1865, but enrollment and funding remained scarce. [2]

By 1881, the University of Louisiana was in serious financial trouble. A November 18, 1881, Daily Picayune article urged for public support:
“We ought to be proud of our University, whose schools of Law and Medicine are supplying the two noblest professions with material of which any nation would be proud; and we shall be compelled to be prouder of it when our wealthy citizens have founded twenty more professorships in the department of literature and science. Let every one help to hasten that time.” [4]

As the University of Louisiana struggled to stay afloat, Paul Tulane, a retired dry goods wholesaler, donated property to the State of Louisiana appraised at $288,700 “for the promotion and encouragement of the intellectual, moral, and industrial education among the white young persons in the city of New Orleans.” [2] This donation was dubbed the Tulane Educational Fund. Then Louisiana Congressional Representative Randall Lee Gibson, a former Confederate Brigadier General, devised the Tulane Educational Fund. The fund was managed by a board of administrators composed of wealthy and influential citizens of New Orleans. [2]

The University of Louisiana and the Tulane Educational Fund saw an opportunity for mutual benefit. It was agreed that the Fund would take possession of the university. As a result, the then public institution was transferred to the private ownership of Tulane Educational Fund and the institution was renamed Tulane University. Louisiana State Legislature Act 43 of 1884 made the university’s transition from public to private official, and the Tulane University of Louisiana was born. [5]



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