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William Rainey Harper Collection

Identifier: SC001-WRH

Scope and Contents

The records in this collection document the life of William Rainey Harper and the role he played in the development and maturation of higher education in the United States. Also documented are the academic achievements of Dr. Harper and members of his family.


  • 1870-2001

Conditions Governing Access

The collection is open for research use.

Biographical / Historical

William Rainey Harper was born on July 24, 1856 in New Concord, Ohio. The son of Scotch-Irish parents, he developed a passion for reading and knowledge at an early age and quickly proved to be a child prodigy. He attended Muskingum College at age 10 and graduated with a degree at 14. He went on to take graduate courses at Yale and earn a PhD at 19. After graduating, he married Ella Paul, daughter of the president of Muskingum College and moved to Tennessee to begin his teaching career, which ultimately took him to Ohio and then Chicago in 1879, where he began teaching at the Baptist Union Theological Seminary. During his tenure in Chicago, he caught the attention of John D. Rockefeller, with whom he quickly became close friends. Dr. Harper remained in contact with Rockefeller when he began teaching in Boston, but was sent back to Chicago in order to fulfill Rockefeller’s dream of building a world-class university there. Harper was made president of the proposed university in 1890, and quickly began raiding other institutions to bring faculty members into his school, which opened as the University of Chicago in 1892. He continued to improve on the university by adding a night school, a university press, and extension courses for adults. Additionally, he also divided the University of Chicago into junior and senior colleges, thus establishing a precedent for the creation of junior colleges across the country. Dr. Harper remained the president of the University until his death in 1906.


7.05 Linear Feet

Language of Materials


William Rainey Harper Collection
Martin Firestein and Bridget T. Lerette
2013 June 12; Revised 2018 May 2
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note

Repository Details

Part of the William Rainey Harper College Archives Repository

1200 W. Algonquin Road
Palatine IL 60067 United States