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Illinois State celebrates firsts

When the University opened its doors in October of 1857 to 43 students, the founders must have known they were providing more than tangible books and classrooms. They were building a community where teaching and learning would become a way of life.

Illinois State’s landscape is radically altered from 150 years ago. Academic programs have expanded as well, and the University’s mission has evolved beyond teaching to include research and public service.

The story of how these changes occurred is filled with intrigue and inspiration, as a list of 150 firsts in the University’s history reveals. While far from a complete chronology, each fact documents a stage in Illinois State’s evolution. A portion of firsts will be included in each Alumni News starting with this April edition.

Take a moment to catch a glimpse of the events and individuals integral to the University’s establishment as a prestigious teacher’s college as well as Illinois State’s transformation throughout each decade. Your Redbird pride will grow with your knowledge of how your university purposefully became a leader in undergraduate education.


  • Charles Hovey was named the first president of Illinois State Normal University (ISNU) in June of 1857, although his official title was “principal.” He served until 1862.
  • Enoch Gastman Jr. of Hudson was the first student to enroll at Illinois State. He was 23 and had already taught school at Kappa and Saybrook.
  • The Normal Debating Society was formed in 1857 as the first student organization. It later became known as The Philadelphians.
  • The University’s Laboratory Schools opened in November of 1857 with seven students. Today there are only 85 laboratory schools nationwide, including Illinois State’s University High School and Metcalf Elementary.
  • The first time any alcoholic beverage was served at an official university function was November 4, 1859. It was then the last brick was placed at Old Main. All present for the ceremony enjoyed a lunch of bread, cheese and beer.
  • The University’s first special collection came into existence in 1859. The George S. Vasey Herbarium is named after the University’s first botanist. He was the first curator of the collection, which includes approximately 60,000 specimens representing more than 4,000 species.
  • Plans for the Quad were done by landscape architect William Saunders. He later designed the national cemetery at Gettysburg and the park system in Washington, D.C. Saunders served as the first botanist and landscape architect for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.


  • The University’s first geologist was John Wesley Powell, the famous scientist-explorer who led the first expedition through the Grand Canyon. He became the second director of the U.S. Geological Survey.
  • The first commencement ceremonies were held in 1860, with a graduating class of 10 students.
  • The University’s first permanent building, Old Main, was completed in 1860 at a cost of $187,000. The building was a campus landmark until its demolition in 1958.
  • The first graduate to become a wartime casualty was Lt. Joseph Howell, who served in the 8th Illinois Infantry. A member of the University’s first graduating class, he was shot off his horse in the Battle of Fort Donelson in February of 1862.
  • The Alumni Association had its official start on June 23, 1863.
  • Sarah Hackett Stevenson, an 1863 graduate, became a prominent Chicago physician and the first woman member of the American Medical Association.
  • President Richard Edwards welcomed the first African-American student to the Laboratory Schools in 1867. The University’s governing board endorsed a policy in 1871 making clear that students of all races are welcome at Illinois State.
  • Jesse Fell was the first unofficial university landscaper. He developed a plan in 1868 for a campus nursery and supervised the planting of 1,847 trees. He had planted 13,000 trees on what became Illinois State acreage before the University was established.


  • The nation’s first college YWCA was established at ISNU in November of 1872. Lida (McMurry) Brown invited six friends to spend an hour praying and singing hymns. Within a few weeks every female student was invited to participate and the chapter was born.
  • The University’s first alumni directory was published in 1876.