It’s impossible to pin down exactly when the University of Virginia got its start—long before the first cornerstone was laid for Pavilion VII, long before the first student paid his tuition, Thomas Jefferson had envisioned the Academical Village and planned the course elective system in his mind.
But many of UVA’s critical first moments are marked in time. Each event listed here is a milestone for the University. Many occurred long ago, others are not so distant, and certainly there are more firsts to come.
The Early Days
First Plans for the Academical Village
By 1810, Jefferson had already begun to form his ideas for the design of a new university. He envisioned small, connected buildings that would house students and professors surrounding three sides of a lawn to form “an open square of grass & trees.” The result would be “an academical village, instead of a large & common den of noise, of filth, & of fetid air.” Jefferson believed his plan “would afford that quiet retirement so friendly to study, and lessen the dangers of fire, infection & tumult.” He drew the first known site plan for what would become the University in 1814, showing a 257-yard-wide lawn, two-story buildings for professors and rows of one-story dormitories.
Jefferson developed the idea of the Rotunda as a focal point for the Academical Village in subsequent years, during his correspondence with architects William Thornton and Benjamin Latrobe.
The First Building
Completed in 1819, Pavilion VII was the Academical Village’s first building. In a Masonic ceremony Oct. 6, 1817, President James Monroe laid the cornerstone. Former Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were in attendance. Pavilion VII served as the University’s first library until the Rotunda was completed in 1826. Since 1907 the pavilion has housed the Colonnade Club, which was established as a place for faculty to socialize and exchange ideas.
First Day of Classes
Although the University was founded in 1819, the first classes weren’t held until March 7, 1825. The original start date was Feb. 1, but storms in the English Channel significantly delayed several professors on their journey to the United States—five of the original seven faculty members were European. Jefferson scrambled to run newspaper advertisements that advised students to wait for further information about the school’s opening.
The First Tuition, Room and Board
When they arrived, students were required to pay what they owed the University, then surrender any additional money they had brought. The money would be redistributed in small amounts throughout the year on request.
The Board of Visitors hoped to limit indulgences in “parade and pleasure” so students could have the best chance “to acquire literature and science, useful habits, and honorable distinction.”
The faculty and the Board of Visitors were not thrilled about the idea of the Chameleon, UVA’s first student-run paper, fearing that it would “impede the performance of duty and the purposes of a liberal education.” In the first column of the paper’s inaugural issue, published April 18, 1831, student editors disagreed: “For however much time we may devote to our Collegiate duties, there must necessarily be many moments of recreation, which could not be more profitably employed than in miscellaneous reading and original composition.”
Members of the Jefferson Literary Society published the first issue of College Topics Jan. 15, 1890. The student-run newspaper, published each Wednesday, chronicled sports news, YMCA events, op-eds, book reviews, social notes and more. In May 1948, after many changes in circulation and content, the publication was renamed the Cavalier Daily. The paper, which remains the oldest collegiate daily in Virginia and the oldest daily paper in Charlottesville, elected its first all-female managing board in January 2015.
Corks and Curls
In the preface of the first yearbook, published in 1888, the editors wrote: “While we hope that it will be considered a success and a credit to the college, we feel strongly that it is not worthy of the leading college in the South, nor of the genius and talent to be found among its students. Be it successful or unsuccessful, let us hope that it will at least be permanent, and serve as a foundation on which to base successful and creditable productions in years to come.”
As the founding editors hoped, that first yearbook provided a solid foundation—Corks and Curls was produced for the next 119 years, until publication ceased after 2008 for financial reasons. A student group revived Corks and Curls and created a 2015 yearbook.
First Life Membership
The first life membership of the Alumni Association was offered in 1909 for $5—an alternative to annual dues of 50 cents.
The First Alumni Association
The first meeting of the Society of Alumni of the University of Virginia, now known as the Alumni Association, was held in the Rotunda library July 4, 1838.
The proceedings of that first meeting include this mission statement of sorts: “A society of this kind, which may offer to the graduates of the University an inducement to revisit the scenes of their youthful studies, which may give new life to the disinterested friendships there formed, and extend and improve the mutual acquaintance of all the favored sons of the same foster-mother of learning and science, we are persuaded cannot but be attended with the happiest effects; and, in more ways than one, prove propitious to the interests of the University.”
First Reunions Weekend
This message, mailed out by the Class of 1908, signaled the start of class reunions at UVA in 1913:
“From June 14th to June 18th, 1913, the old University will be the scene of the first real live Reunion that’s ever been pulled off at Virginia. Every man who left in 1908, whether a graduate or not, is a member of the Class of 1908 and is expected to be there with bells on. THIS MEANS YOU!”
The classes of 1907, 1909, 1911 and 1912 were also invited to the event. Each class wore its own costume to participate in “elaborate high jinks on Lambeth Field, and the whole reunion reached its climax with a monumental barbecue,” wrote Virginius Dabney, alumnus, historian and longtime editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
First Student Body
The enrollment by the end of the first year of classes, 1825, was about 125 students, who chose courses within an elective system—a freedom that was unusual at the time. Students were strongly encouraged to take three subjects. “There was no preordained course for the student to pursue. He followed his own taste, too often immature when he had any preference at all, in the choice of his studies; and equally as often he was not really equipped to attend the lectures he selected,” wrote historian Philip Bruce.
First Rhodes Scholar
William A. Fleet was not only the first Rhodes scholar from UVA, he was also the first from the United States. He attended the University of Oxford in 1904 and later returned to England to fight for the English Army during World War I. In May 1918, Fleet was killed in action. "America could have had no better representative to start her tradition here," read a tribute to Fleet in the London Times after his death.
Fifty UVA alumni have been awarded Rhodes scholarships, second only to the U.S. Military Academy among public institutions.
First Time Ranked First
U.S. News & World Report ranked UVA the No. 1 public university for the first time in 1993. In its 2015 Best Colleges Survey, U.S. News ranked UVA the No. 2 public university for the 11th consecutive year.
First Engineering School
As the Industrial Revolution gathered steam, the need for civil engineers grew. Recognizing this, mathematics professor Charles Bonnycastle proposed a new department of engineering, which the Board of Visitors approved Aug. 13, 1836. This new department evolved into the first engineering school in the South and the first at a comprehensive university.
The first classes were taught by Bonnycastle and professor of natural philosophy William Barton Rogers. Bonnycastle taught geometry and theories of leveling, surveying, roads, railroads, canals and bridges. Rogers covered theoretical mechanics, hydrostatics and hydrodynamics, the laws of heat and steam, and geology and mineralogy. Each was paid an additional $15 a session for his work.
First National Championship
The Virginia boxing team won the school’s first national championship in 1938 (sharing the title with Catholic University and West Virginia), 11 years after boxing became an official varsity sport. Coached by Johnny LaRowe, a former Marine and Corner billiard parlor owner, the boxing team became a national powerhouse in the 1930s and fans flocked to the matches in Memorial Gymnasium. A New York Sun columnist described one of the UVA teams from that time as “the best set of amateur boxers in the world.” Concerns about the sport’s safety became widespread in the following decades, and the University disbanded the team in 1955.
First Football All-American
Eugene “Buck” Mayer was the first player from a Southern school to be named a consensus All-American, earning the honor in 1915. Mayer, a halfback, scored 46 touchdowns and 293 points during his career, records that wouldn't be broken until more than 80 years later. He was also a member of the track team and earned a law degree from the University.
First Women’s Basketball All-American
Virginia’s first women’s basketball All-American, guard Donna Holt (Educ ’88), was twice named an All-America selection. The 1988 ACC Player of the Year, Holt is the ACC’s all-time steals leader and ended her career ranked fourth on the ACC career assists list.
First Basketball All-American
A center who played for coach Henry “Pop” Lannigan, William Strickling became the first UVA basketball player to earn first-team All-America honors, in 1915. That season, Strickling averaged 17.8 points per game, leading Virginia’s “Famous Five” to a perfect 17-0 record.
First Capital One Cup
After winning an ACC-record three national championships in the 2014-15 academic year (men’s soccer, men’s tennis and baseball), UVA capped off its memorable sports year with one more title: the Capital One Cup. The competition is based on a school’s standings in NCAA championships and coaches’ polls. Champions are crowned for both men’s sports and women’s sports (Stanford University won the women’s title). Along with bragging rights and a trophy, UVA received $200,000 for athletic scholarships.
People and Places
Thomas Jefferson never wanted a president for his university. The school was to be run, he said, by a rector and a board of visitors. But by the early 20th century, UVA was growing rapidly and the board and faculty struggled to unilaterally manage its affairs. From 1904 to 1931, Edwin A. Alderman, a champion of public education in the South, served as UVA’s first president. He increased student enrollment and the University’s endowment, reorganized the college and expanded the faculty, laid the foundation for the development of professional schools, and helped establish UVA as a leading academic institution.
First known female member of the Seven Society: Mary B. Proffitt
As news of the death of Mary B. Proffitt spread around Grounds in December 1958, the Chapel carillon tolled a familiar chime: seven notes struck simultaneously, seven times for seven seconds, the customary tolling for a member of the Seven Society. People were shocked. Until then, it was assumed that the Sevens were all male.
Proffitt worked at the University from 1912 to 1953, as secretary to Dean James M. Page and his successor, Dean Ivey F. Lewis (Col ’38, Law ’42), but her duties extended beyond answering phones and correspondence. She knew personally nearly every student in the College and was familiar with their records—their grades and their behavior. Acting with the dean’s approval, Proffitt would often call in a student she knew to be ignoring his studies or consuming too much alcohol and demand an explanation. Legend has it that she once told a student that he was wasting his time at the University and to go home. He left the next day.
Proffitt was admired among students for her candor and her tendency to listen more than she spoke. According to Dean B.F.D. Runk, “She probably kept more students from being thrown out, and got more suspensions changed to reprimands than anyone else in the University.”
First year UVA became fully co-educational
Although thousands of women had earned professional, graduate, undergraduate and nursing degrees from the University, UVA wasn’t fully co-educational until 1970, when 450 women enrolled in the College of Arts & Sciences. That year, women made up just over one-third of students, and by fall 1995, overall female enrollment (9,302) exceeded male enrollment (9,019) for the first time and has continued to do so every year since.
First state appropriation (funding)
In 1818, the Virginia General Assembly passed a bill appropriating $15,000 annually (equivalent to about $250,000 in today’s currency) for the funding and support of a state university. In 2013, state appropriation for the University’s academic division was more than $140 million, about 8 percent of its overall income.
First class of nursing students
The University began its nursing education program in 1901, basing its structure on Florence Nightingale’s nurse training school in London. Student nurses worked 10 to 12 hours a day, learning on the job, and obtained their degrees after two years’ practice. The Board of Visitors established the nursing baccalaureate program in 1928.
First dining hall
Jefferson designed the West and East Range hotels to serve as dining halls for UVA students. Hotel-keepers, who were independent entrepreneurs, provided meals to students as well as furniture and linens. Enslaved servants worked for the hotel-keepers, serving meals, cleaning rooms and doing laundry. Students could shop around for the best food and services.
First student society
The Jefferson Literary and Debating Society was founded in July 1825 by 16 members of the Patrick Henry Society. Unlike the latter, which was open to the public, the Jefferson Society was solely for UVA students and started as a secret organization. Hotel C on West Range, now known as Jefferson Hall, became its permanent meeting place. The Jefferson Society also founded the University Magazine, a student publication later known as the Virginia Spectator.
First Rotunda Costs
Completed in 1826, Jefferson’s Rotunda cost around $58,000 to build, equivalent to $1.23 million in today’s currency. After the building burned down in 1895, the University hired architect Stanford White to redesign and rebuild the Rotunda and construct new academic buildings, all at a cost of $500,000 ($13 million today). The Rotunda has required constant repair and upkeep, and the current restoration project, which includes a copper dome, new oculus and new marble capitals, is expected to cost around $50 million by the time it is completed in 2016.
The University’s first infirmary was built in 1857 and was the first UVA establishment to provide medical care to students. Previously, ill undergraduates relied on rare visits from a physician and mostly had to “tough it out” in their rooms, according to Virginius Dabney. The infirmary was run by UVA medical faculty. Its building is still on Grounds; today it is known as Varsity Hall.
First collegiate YMCA
The first collegiate Young Men’s Christian Association was founded at the University of Virginia in 1856. Housed in Madison Hall, the YMCA had a mission to create faith-based student groups; in time, these became focused on volunteer work. In the 1968-69 school year, the University's YMCA was reincorporated as the Masters and Fellows of Madison Hall. The organization sold Madison Hall to the University in 1971, constructed a smaller building on Rugby Road and changed its name once more to Madison House.
First African-American graduate of the University
Walter N. Ridley was UVA's first African-American graduate, earning a doctorate of education degree in 1953. Ridley began his career teaching psychology at Virginia State College and wanted to earn a doctorate, but UVA—a traditionally white university—was the only institution in the state that granted such degrees. After being repeatedly denied admission, Ridley enrolled at the University of Minnesota in 1939, where he researched whether audiovisual materials used in schools contained content that would be detrimental to black students. The research involved watching countless hours of film, and after suffering a hemorrhage in his eye, Ridley returned home to Virginia State College. In 1950, he had a chance meeting with Curry School Dean Lindley Stiles at a time when UVA had decided to seek high-achieving black students for enrollment. Ridley had a distinguished career in higher education: he taught at Virginia State College for many years and, from 1958 to 1968, was president of Elizabeth City State College in North Carolina.
First University hospital
In 1893, UVA’s medical faculty recommended to the Board of Visitors that a hospital be built on Grounds. Under the guidance on Dr. Paul Brandon Barringer, a UVA professor of physiology and surgery, a committee planned and raised funds for the project for the next six years. Architect Paul J. Pelz designed a 150-bed facility, and construction began in October 1899. On Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, April 13, 1901, the first building of the University of Virginia Hospital opened, with an operating theater, solarium and laboratories. Two new wings of the hospital opened in 1905 and 1907, containing patient wards, kitchens and interns’ quarters.
- 175 Years of Engineering at the University of Virginia
- “All the Hoos in Hooville: 175 Years of Life at the University of Virginia,” online exhibition by UVA Library
- The Campus Guide: University of Virginia (2012), Richard Guy Wilson, David J. Neuman and Sarah A. Butler
- The Cavalier Daily
- The Chameleon, Vol. 1, No. 1, April 18, 1831
- Corks & Curls (1888)
- The Daily Progress, Monday afternoon, Aug. 10, 1959, Anita M. Black, “UVA has a fairy godfather”
- Encyclopedia Virginia
- Far Echoes from the Old Arcades: A History of the Alumni Association of the University of Virginia (1983), Virginius Dabney
- A History of the Quinquennial Reunion of the Class of 1908 (1913), Lewis Crenshaw
- History of the University of Virginia, 1819-1919 (Vol. 1 &2) (1920), Philip Alexander Bruce
- The London Times (1918)
- Mr. Jefferson’s University (2002), Garry Wills
- Mr. Jefferson’s University: A History (1981), Virginius Dabney
- Office of the Architect for the University
- Proceedings of the Society of Alumni of the University of Virginia (1838)
- The Ridley Scholarship Fund
- Thomas Jefferson’s Academical Village: The Creation of an Architectural Masterpiece (2009), Richard Guy Wilson
- University of Virginia Alumni News
- University of Virginia Athletics Media Relations Office
- University of Virginia Office of Communications
- UVA Office of Institutional Assessment and Studies
- Dollar-conversion calculations based on formula provided by Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis
Images courtesy of UVA Special Collections, Virginia Athletics Media Relations, University of Virginia Alumni Association
Correction: September 2, 2015
An earlier version of this article misstated the school William Fleet attended. It is the University of Oxford.