About Washburn

History of Washburn

Washburn University has a rich history dating back nearly 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

  • May 1, 1890: Washburn student Samuel Naylor wins first place at the Inter-State Oratorical Contest in Lincoln, Neb. In celebration on May 5, a large procession of students, faculty and dignitaries march down Kansas Avenue to the Statehouse, receive a six-gun salute and ride streetcars to the campus for speeches and a reception at Boswell Library.
  • Spring 1890: Two female students are suspended for going to Topeka on a Friday evening and returning two hours after curfew.
  • May 6, 1897: A large tract of college land is rented to a dairy to bring income to Washburn.
  • May 3, 1902: The chapel, opened in 1890, is named for Peter McVicar. The original building, Known as the Science Hall, is named Rice Hall, to honor Harvey Rice, a founder of the College.
  • May 22, 1917: Nonoso, a female honor society, is founded. The name is derived from the motto Non nobis solum.
  • May 17, 1954: The Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka decision is handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court. Eleven Washburn Law graduates participate in the case: the judge hearing the initial case, four attorneys representing the plaintiff, three representing the defense and three representing the State.
  • May 15, 1958: Mr. and Mrs. John Schumaker are the first to move into the new married student housing complex on the southeast corner of campus.
  • May 13, 1968: Members of the 69th Infantry Brigade of the Kansas National Guard report for active duty and embark for Vietnam, interrupting the academic plans of many students.
  • May 7, 1970: The Washburn flag on campus is lowered to half-staff by students as a tribute to those killed at Kent State University while protesting the Vietnam War.
  • May 16, 1971: Commencement activities include the dedication of the Learning Resources Center. The building is renamed in 1976 to honor Washburn President John Henderson.
  • May 16, 1976: The first graduating class of the baccalaureate nursing program includes 20 students.
  • May 17, 1984: Coretta Scott King, widow of Martin Luther King, Jr., speaks in White Concert Hall to mark the 30th anniversary of the Brown v. Topeka Board of Education ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • May 16, 1997: Dedication of “Wings of Freedom,” a sculpture at the School of Law.
  • May 17, 2004: Washburn participates in the Brown v. Board of Education decision 50th anniversary celebration with a special exhibit at the Mulvane, broadcast of the KTWU documentary “Black White and Brown” and sponsorship of the play “Now Let Me Fly.”
  • May 2, 2006: School of Business earns accreditation from AACSB-International
  • May 5, 2014: In recognition of the Brown v. Board Education decision 60th anniversary celebration, Washburn music ensembles present the annual President’s Concert at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, Mo. Soloists include Richetta Manager, ba 1975, an international opera talent.
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.

rugena.hall@washburn.edu