Introduced extended university education in the United States
The University of Chicago Extension Division was organized in 1892. Known today as the Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies, it was founded on the principles of engagement with the community and accessibility to as many students as possible. By 1895, students were attending courses at 54 extension centers (39 outside of Chicago). University Extension was the first US school to organize correspondence courses at the college level, offering full credit for successful completion and using the same rigorous standards as in UChicago classrooms.
Today’s Graham School students attend an Arabic class at Gleacher Center in downtown Chicago.
Eiji Asada, PhD 1893, scholar of Semitic languages and Old Testament biblical studies
Authored seminal English-language textbook for Japanese audiences
Eiji Asada, a Japanese student in Semitic Languages and Literatures, received the University’s first PhD in 1893. Asada was the author of the first English textbook and reader for a Japanese audience. It was used widely in Japan at the start of the 20th century.
Matriculated the first African American scholar to publish in a major sociology journal
As a student at the University of Chicago in 1901, Monroe Nathan Work, AB 1902, AM 1903, published “The Negro and Crime in Chicago,” the first scholarly article by an African American to be published in the American Journal of Sociology. Later, as founding director of the Department of Records and Research, Work aggressively advanced empirical research on the African American experience.
Monroe Nathan Work, AB 1902, AM 1903
Zoologist Ernest Everett Just
Discovered significant aspect of cell cleavage
Ernest Everett Just, PhD 1916, worked with University of Chicago zoologist Frank Lillie at what is now the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. During dissertation research for his PhD in zoology, he made an important discovery about cell cleavage, showing that the sperm entry point determines the first cleavage plane in the egg of the marine annelid Nereis limbata.
Conferred one of the first PhDs on an African American woman
In 1921, Georgiana Simpson, a German philology student at the University of Chicago, and two scholars at other institutions became the first African American women to receive PhDs from American universities.
Georgiana Simpson, AB 1911, PhD 1921
Carter G. Woodson, AB 1908, AM 1908
Created forerunner of Black History Month
Known as the father of black history, historian Carter G. Woodson, AB 1908, AM 1908, announced the creation of Negro History Week at the Wabash YMCA in Bronzeville in February 1926. Negro History Week was the forerunner of the nation’s annual commemoration of Black History Month, established in 1976. Woodson helped to transform how people think about black history, creating the peer-reviewed Journal of Negro History, establishing the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), and starting the ASALH Press.
Helped advance civil rights
In 1935, the School of Religion conferred a PhD on Benjamin E. Mays, whose thesis, “The Idea of God in Contemporary Negro Literature,” was one of the first dissertations outside the field of sociology to focus specifically on African American studies. He went on to work with the National Urban League, helping to improve conditions for impoverished African Americans, and was an early member of several civil rights organizations, including the NAACP, Southern Conference for Human Welfare, and President John F. Kennedy’s Civil Rights Commission.
Benjamin E. Mays, AM’25, PhD’35
Julian H. Lewis, PhD 1915
Debunked race-based blood typing
Julian H. Lewis, PhD 1915, the first African American to hold both an MD and a PhD, conducted groundbreaking research on race and blood typing that led to his hallmark book, Biology of the Negro, in 1942. His book was a precursor to the field of anthropathology, which looks at racial differences in the expression of disease, and is credited with changing many people’s perspectives on race. Lewis was also the first African American to teach at the University of Chicago, where he was a noted expert in immunology.
Influenced how history of American slavery is studied and taught
Historian John Hope Franklin, best known for From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans (1947), influenced the way American history is studied and taught. His work aimed to accurately represent African Americans in American history “so that,” he said, “the story of the United States could be told adequately and fairly.” Franklin received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995.
John Hope Franklin, the John Matthews Manly Distinguished Service Professor in History
The Charles M. Harper Center, home of Chicago Booth
Established the first business school scholarship for minorities
In 1964, the University of Chicago Booth School of Business became the first business school to establish a minority scholarship program.
Inaugurated the first Jewish president of a major US university
Law professor Edward H. Levi, LAB’28, AB’32, JD’35, who had served as dean of the Law School and University Provost, was inaugurated president of the University of Chicago in 1968, becoming the first Jewish president of a major university in the United States. In February 1975, Levi became Attorney General of the United States in the Ford Administration.
Edward H. Levi, President of the University of Chicago, 1968–75
Members of the University of Chicago Gay and Lesbian Alliance (GALA) take part in the 1991 Chicago Pride Parade.
Founded influential gay liberation organization
In 1969, UChicago students formed the University of Chicago Gay Liberation Front, establishing one of Chicago’s first gay liberation organizations. The group helped organize the city’s first Pride Parade in June 1969 and was instrumental in the passage of the 1988 Chicago Human Rights Ordinance, which protects lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals from discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodation.
Home to the first woman president of the Association of American Law Schools
Soia Mentschikoff was elected president of the Association of American Law Schools in 1972 and was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences the same year. The first woman to join the University of Chicago Law School faculty, in 1951, she headed a project that applied quantitative research methods to the study of arbitration decisions. In 1964, she represented the United States at The Hague, where she advocated for a uniform law that would govern international sales and arbitration.
Soia Mentschikoff, first woman president of the Association of American Law Schools
Hanna Holborn Gray walks to her presidential inauguration with Robert W. Reneker, chair of the University's Board of Trustees.
Inaugurated the first female president of a major private US university
When historian Hanna Holborn Gray was inaugurated president of the University of Chicago in 1978, she became the first female president of a major private university in the United States. She served for 15 years and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1991 for “devoting her abundant talent and energy to the causes of excellence, truth, and freedom.”
Among the first universities to offer domestic partnership benefits to LGBT couples
In 1992, the University of Chicago moved to offer domestic partnership benefits to gay and lesbian couples, becoming one of the first universities to adopt such a policy.
Members of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance demonstrate for the right to receive domestic partnership benefits during Weddstock 1992.
This Smart Museum of Art exhibit of contemporary Chinese photo-based art was curated by Wu Hung, the Harrie A. Vanderstappen Professor in Art History, and Christopher Phillips, Curator at New York’s International Center of Photography.
Promoted the study of contemporary Chinese art in the West
Art historian Wu Hung, who came to the University of Chicago in 1994, is widely considered the first person to introduce contemporary Chinese art to the West and open it as field of critical study. Wu’s work has shaped a generation of curators and scholars, both here and in China, and exposed Western audiences to a deeper understanding of Chinese art at a time of great economic and social change.
Tenured award-winning historian of gay history
In 1994, pioneering scholar of gay history George Chauncey published Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940. The book dispelled notions about pre-1960s gay culture and won several prestigious prizes, including the Frederick Jackson Turner Prize for the best first book in any field of history, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the Lambda Literary Award. UChicago hired Chauncey in 1991, becoming the second university in the country to offer a tenure-track position to someone with a gay history thesis.
Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940
Wei-Jen Tang, Professor in the Ben May Department for Cancer Research
Launched interdisciplinary research into race, politics, and culture
In 2004, scholar and activist Cathy Cohen began the Black Youth Project, a national research project devoted to examining the attitudes, resources, and culture of African American youth. Cohen’s major contributions linking academics with activism earned her the University of Chicago’s inaugural Faculty Diversity Leadership Award in 2014.
Cathy Cohen, the David and Mary Winton Green Professor in Political Science
Invisible Man, 2011
Premiered stage adaptations of classic novels by African Americans
Court Theatre at the University of Chicago first brought Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Richard Wright’s Native Son to the stage. Oren Jacoby’s adaptation of the 1952 novel by Ralph Ellison, who was Alexander White Visiting Professor of Literature at UChicago in 1961, won a 2012 Joseph Jefferson Award for Best New Adaptation. Nambi E. Kelley’s critically acclaimed adaptation of Native Son premiered in 2015. These productions further solidified Court’s strong reputation for staging compelling African American drama.
Demonstrated art’s ability to transform
Artist Theaster Gates received the Artes Mundi prize in 2015, a major honor for contemporary artists. The prize, among the world’s largest, honored Gates for his piece “A Complicated Relationship between Heaven and Earth, or When We Believe.” The judges praised Gates as an activist, urbanist, facilitator, and curator. The professor of visual arts and director of arts and public life at the University is an innovator in using art to reshape and revive formerly neglected neighborhoods. His Dorchester Projects created small-scale artist residencies throughout Greater Grand Crossing in Chicago.
Theaster Gates, Professor and Director of Arts + Public Life
Carla Hayden, AM’77, PhD’87, 14th librarian of Congress
Educated the first woman and African American to serve as librarian of Congress
Carla Hayden, AM’77, PhD’87, was named the 14th librarian of Congress in July 2016. The first woman and first African American to serve in the role, she is also the first professional librarian in more than 60 years to lead the Library of Congress, the nation’s largest library and oldest federal institution. Hayden earned her PhD from the University of Chicago’s Graduate Library School in 1987.
Enrolled Haiti’s first female Olympic swimmer
Naomy Grand’Pierre, College Class of 2019, became Haiti’s first female Olympic swimmer when she competed in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, finishing second in her heat in the women’s 50-meter freestyle event.
Naomy Grand'Pierre at the 2016 Summer Olympics