Skip to main content

WU History FAQ

Frequently asked questions about the history of Washington University in St. Louis. Pages maintained by University Archives.

Origin of the "Washington" Name

When Washington University in St. Louis was founded in 1853, it was named "Eliot Seminary". That name was given to the new institution by Wayman Crow, the St. Louis businessman and Missouri state senator who was responsible for the introduction of the institution's charter into the state legislature. The name paid tribute to Crow's good friend, St. Louis minister and educator William Greenleaf Eliot. Eliot served as the first Chairman of the Board of Trustees.

Eliot did not approve of the name "Eliot Seminary", and at its first meeting in 1854, one of the first actions of the Board of Trustees was to appoint a subcommittee charged with finding a suitable name for the institution. The committee recommended the name "Washington Institute in St. Louis", and the trustees approved this recommendation. Soon afterward, an act of the Missouri Legislature changed the university's charter to reflect the new name. In February of 1856, the trustees recommended another name change, this time to "Washington University". The university's charter was modified to read "Washington University" in 1857.

The words "in St. Louis" were added to the University's name by trustee action in 1976, in order to better distinguish our institution in the national media. Nationwide, there are approximately 20 institutions which share the Washington name.

Our institution is named for George Washington, the first President of the United States. The early trustees chose this name for two reasons:

  • The University's charter, was (by a historical coincidence) passed on Washington's birthday: February 22, 1853.
  • Washington's service to the nation was an important symbol in the eyes of the trustees.

Speaking at the university's inauguration in April, 1857, William Greenleaf Eliot said:

It is also a name admirably adapted to the plan proposed, namely, the establishment of an American University, upon the broad foundation of Republican and Christian principles, free from the trammels of sect and party; a University for the people, whom Washington served; to educate the rising generations in that love of country and of our whole country, which the Farewell Address of Washington inculcates, and in that faithfulness to God and Truth which made Washington great.