William Greenleaf Eliot was born August 5, 1811 in New Bedford, Massachusetts.
He went on to attend Columbian College (now George Washington University in Washington, D.C.) graduating in 1831.
William then did graduate studies at Harvard Divinity School, graduating in 1834.
William married Abigail Adams Cranch, a first cousin of both his mother and father (their mothers were siblings).
He was ordained as a minister of the Unitarian Church on August 17, 1834.
After his ordination, William Eliot moved to St. Louis to found the Church of the Messiah, the first Unitarian church west of the Mississippi River.
He became active in the rapid expansion of St. Louis and fathered 14 children.
William had a strong interest in developing educational opportunities in the city.
He was instrumental in the founding of the St. Louis Public Schools, the Mission Free School, the South Side Day Nursery, and even the St. Louis Art Museum.
William Eliot, along with 16 other St. Louis business, political, and religious leaders, became concerned by the lack of institutions of higher learning in the Midwest.
He then led an effort with Missouri State Senator Wayman Crow to found a university in St.Louis.
A charter was granted by the Missouri General Assembly on February 22,1853, with William Eliot named as President of the Board of Trustees.
The board named the new university “Eliot Seminary,” but William was uncomfortable with naming a university after himself and objected to the establishment of a seminary, which would then be implicitly charged with teaching a religious faith.
William argued for a nonsectarian university with Joseph Gibson Hoyt as the first chancellor.
The school was initially located in public buildings at 17th Street and Washington Avenue in the heart of downtown St. Louis. Its first class was held October 22, 1854 in the Benton Public School building.
During this period of bitter national division leading up to the Civil War, Americans still universally admired George Washington as the father of the United States and a symbol of national unity.
The Board of Trustees then changed the name to “Washington Institute” in honor of our nation’s first president George Washington.
William believed that the new ‘university’ should become a force of unity in a strongly divided Missouri, so in 1856 they amended its name again, this time to “Washington University.”
At first, even though chartered as a university, for many years Washington University functioned primarily as a night school due to limited financial resources.
William continued to solicit support from members of the local business community, but failed to secure a permanent endowment.
Washington University is unusual among major American universities in not having had a prior financial endowment. The new institution had no direct backing of a religious organization, single wealthy patron, or earmarked government support.
Eventually the board secured funds for the construction of Academic Hall and a half dozen other buildings. Later the university divided into three departments: the Manual Training School, Smith Academy, and the Mary Institute.
In 1859, William Eliot founded Mary Institute, a school for girls which he named after his daughter, who died young. Today, Mary Institute is part of the co-educational Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School.
In 1861, William Eliot was part of a small group of men who helped Generals Nathaniel Lyon and Francis P. Blair to retain Missouri in the Union.
Then during the American Civil War, William Eliot founded the Western Sanitary Commission to provide medical care and supplies.
After the war, he was also instrumental in the development of the Colored Orphan’s Home, Soldiers’ Orphans’ Home, Memorial Home, the Blind Girls Home, Women’s Christian Home, and other charitable institutions.
In 1867, Washington University opened the first private nonsectarian law school west of the Mississippi River.
William Eliot retired as minister of the First Unitarian Church of St. Louis in 1870 and took over as chancellor of Washington University.
He also published his Doctrines of Christianity, his Lectures to Young Men, his Discipline of Sorrow, his Lectures to Young Women (later reprinted as Home and Influence) and The Story of Archer Alexander:From Slavery to Freedom.
Upon a visit to St. Louis, Ralph Waldo Emerson referred to William Eliot as “the Saint of the West.”
William Eliot died in Mississippi on January 23, 1887 at the age of 75.
William is also the grandfather of T.S. Eliot.
In 1891, Washington University held its first Medical classes after the St.Louis Medical College decided to affiliate with Washington University, establishing the Washington University School of Medicine.
Then in 1976, the university amended its name once more when the Board of Trustees voted to add the suffix “in St. Louis” to distinguish the university from the nearly two dozen other universities bearing Washington’s name.
Today, Washington University in St. Louis is a private research university affiliated with 22 Nobel laureates, 9 having done the major part of their pioneering research at the university William Eliot first established today in 1853.
Now WE know em