About Washburn

History of Washburn

Washburn University has a rich history dating back 150 years. Our university was founded in 1865 by members of the Congregational Church on the principle that all people – regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or family income – have the right to earn an education.

Programs of study have been added through the years and today Washburn's legacy of providing opportunity to all who seek an education continues for more than 7,000 students in more than 200 academic programs. Washburn offers programs that lead to certification, associate, bachelor, master's, doctor of nursing practice and juris doctor degrees.

Learn much more about the history of Washburn University through this 11-page chapter provided to incoming students in the First Year Experience.

Our namesake: Ichabod Washburn

Photo of Washburn University benefactor Ichabod Washburn

Ichabod Washburn worked his way from indentured apprentice to captain of industry. The businessman was also a fervent Congregationalist, abolitionist and philanthropist who believed in the rights of all people to an education.

Washburn was sent at age 9 to learn leather harness-making because his widowed mother could not provide for him. He later became an apprentice blacksmith and learned machinery. By the time he was 33, in 1831, Washburn had developed a machine and technique that made wire stronger and easier to produce, which ultimately lead to his fortune.

His innovations in wire led some to call him a father of the industry. His company, Washburn and Moen Wire Works, named for Ichabod and his son-in-law and partner Philip Moen, was the largest wire producer in the world for a time. It was the primary domestic producer of piano wire and crinoline wire, which became an affordable alternative to whale bone in the popular hoop skirts of the 1850s and ’60s. Washburn and Moen produced tons of telegraph wire and after Washburn’s death the company secured a patent for and mass produced barbed wire, which fenced the homesteads of the American West.

When Horatio Q. Butterfield, a professor and lead fundraiser at financially struggling Lincoln College in Kansas, visited Washburn’s home in Worcester, Mass. in October 1868, the businessman apparently liked what he heard. Founded by the Congregational Church in 1865, the school enrolled women and men, including an African-American, in its first class. The college also offered scholarships to honorably discharged Union soldiers among others. Washburn, a church deacon, pledged $25,000 to the college. The following month, the one-building institution was renamed Washburn College, at Butterfield’s recommendation, in recognition of the pledge. Washburn died Dec. 30, 1868 after complications of a stroke. He never set foot on his namesake campus.

Non Nobis Solum

Washburn’s motto, “non nobis solum,” speaks directly to the university’s founding principles. It means “Not for ourselves alone.” Charlotte Leaitt, professor of English, suggested the motto in the early 1900s.

This month in Washburn history

  • July 1, 1941: Washburn College officially becomes Washburn Municipal University.
  • July 1, 1973: The economics and business administration department is reorganized to establish the School of Business.
  • July 1, 2008: Kaw Area Technical School becomes an affiliate of Washburn and is later renamed Washburn Institute of Technology. 
  • July 1982: Previously part of the College of Arts and Sciences, the nursing program becomes the School of Nursing.
  • July 4, 1982: Fireworks illuminate the night sky at the first Go 4th! Independence Day celebration, which attracts thousands of spectators to campus.
  • 1993: Mulvane Mountain-Plains Art Fair debuts, continuing the museum’s 60-year tradition of hosting art fairs.
  • July 7, 1995: Art Fletcher, ba 1950, enters the Republican primary race for president as an opponent to Bob Dole, ba 1952 & jd 1952.
  • July 26, 1996: Albert Guardado, a Washburn junior, advances to the boxing quarterfinals in the light flyweight division at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Ga.
  • 1998: The 110-year-old Warner & Swasey refracting telescope in Crane Observatory is refurbished.
  • 2006: Artificial turf is installed in Moore Bowl and the four-lane Sneed Track is completed.
  • 2009: Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity moves into their new house on MacVicar Ave.
Today's Ichabods are making history

Learn about what Ichabods are doing to make a difference from the Washburn University news service.

Honorary Degree Recipients

Honorary Degree Recipients
Washburn's Early Years, 1865-1914
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Washburn 1915-1965
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Washburn 1966-1990
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Explore our history and celebrate 150 years

To volunteer, contact Rugena Hall in the President’s Office: 785.670.1556.