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COLLECTION Identifier: UAI 5.150

Records of the President of Harvard University, Charles W. Eliot


Charles William Eliot (1834-1926) was President of Harvard University from March 12, 1869 to May 19, 1909. He transformed Harvard from a regional institution to a world-class university. The Records consist of official records produced by his administration. The largest part of these papers, consisting of correspondence and writings, document important aspects of Eliot’s administration and shed light on his leadership and accomplishments.


  • 1869-1930.


Conditions on Use and Access

These records are open to researchers. Please consult the reference staff for details on how to obtain access. Some restrictions may apply.


90 cubic feet (205 document boxes, 40 portfolio boxes, 2 card file boxes, 3 microfilm reels, 1 oversized folder)

The Records of the President of Harvard University, Charles W. Eliot, consist of official records produced by Eliot and his administration. They date principally from 1869 to his retirement in 1909. The largest part of these papers, consisting of correspondence and writings, document important aspects of Eliot’s administration and shed light on his leadership and accomplishments. These papers illustrate Eliot’s roles as a salesman, lobbyist, educator, philosopher, cheerleader, and chief executive of Harvard University for forty years. Material related to Eliot’s personal life will not be found in these papers, nor will Eliot’s earlier writings (1848-1868). Both of these form part of the Papers of Charles William Eliot (UAI 15.894).

Biographical Essay

Charles W. Eliot (1834-1926) was President of Harvard University from March 12, 1869 to May 19, 1909. A strong administrator and creative educator, Eliot’s presidency was marked by several major innovations that transformed Harvard University from a regional institution to a university of international stature and helped broaden and invigorate American education.

Among these major innovations were:

  1. The re-organization of the Harvard Medical School and its placement on a firmer financial foundation
  2. The re-making of the Law School and the introduction of the "case system" of instruction
  3. The re-building of the Divinity School with a Faculty containing members of several denominations
  4. The establishment of religious services on a voluntary basis under a board of preachers representing several denominations
  5. The establishment of a requirement of a previous degree for admission to all the professional schools
  6. The administration of the University as a group of departments, including undergraduate and graduate schools of medicine, law, and arts and sciences
  7. The perfecting of an elective system by which students were allowed to choose from a wide range of subjects, enlarging liberal arts study
  8. Increases in the endowment and in the number of students
  9. The improvement in the scholarly merit of the men appointed to teach at the University
  10. The improvement of student life and services

Eliot’s two main contributions to the development of higher education in the United States were his promotion of an elective system of courses and the improvement in professional education. He wrote extensively about the elective system, convinced that giving students a choice in their studies would improve mental discipline and training. By 1885, Harvard students had complete choice in the selection of their studies. In addition, through tireless effort, by the time of Eliot’s retirement, Harvard had earned a reputation for vigorous academic scholarship and rigor in its professional schools.

During Eliot’s forty-year tenure as President of Harvard University, Eliot fought for those reforms and changes that he thought were needed to improve Harvard and nourish the intellectual curiosity of its students. From expanding the size of the faculty, seeking prospective students throughout the nation, raising admission standards, improving educational opportunities for women, reforming the college statutes, attracting money for new dormitories and college buildings, promoting faculty research, or improving faculty salaries, Eliot touched every aspect of Harvard administration as President, helping to transform a small liberal arts college into a major university.

C. W. Eliot Biographical Sources

  1. Cotton, Edward H. The Life of Charles W. Eliot. Boston: Small, Maynard, and Company 1926.
  2. Dunbar, C.F. President Eliot's Administration, 1869-1894. The Harvard Graduates Magazine 17, no. 67 (March, 1909) : 407-430.
  3. James, Henry. Charles W. Eliot, President of Harvard University, 1869-1909. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1930.
  4. Morison, Samuel Eliot, ed. The Development of Harvard University, since the Inauguration of President Eliot, 1869-1929. Vol. VI. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1930.
  5. Perry, Ralph Barton. Charles W. Eliot. In Dictionary of American Biography, Vol. VI. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1933.
  6. Taussig, F.W. President Eliot's Administration, 1894-1909. The Harvard Graduates Magazine 17, no. 67 (March, 1909) : 375-390.

Biographical / Historical

The Harvard Corporation elects Eliot as President of Harvard University, March 12
Eliot's inauguration occurs on October 19
Graduate School of Arts and Sciences is founded
Arnold Arboretum is established
Great fire of Boston, President Eliot personally rescues University financial records and equities
Department of Fine Arts is established
Harvard offers United States' first courses in architecture
Memorial Hall is completed
Construction of Hemenway Gymnasium, heralded as the world's finest, begins
The Harvard Annex, later the Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Women, later Radcliffe College, opens with 27 female students
Sever Hall built
Austin Hall built
School of Veterinary Medicine founded
Elective system extended to freshman year at Harvard
Jefferson Physical Laboratory completed
Fay Mansion on Cambridge Common is purchased for the Annex
Two Hundred Fiftieth Anniversary celebrated with more than 2,500 alumni and friends, U.S. President Cleveland attends
President Eliot's elective system of courses is fully implemented
Harvard ends compulsory prayers, is the first American institution to do so
Graduate School made a distinct branch of the University
Faculty of Arts and Sciences established as umbrella for Harvard College, Lawrence Scientific School and the Graduate School
Semitic Museum founded
Eliot secures the Corporation's endorsement for his plan of shortening and enriching the school course, adding natural history, laboratory physics, algebra, geometry, and the classic and modern languages
Instruction begins in American archaeology, ethnology, and anthropology
Radcliffe College incorporated; holds its first commencement
Harvard faculties commemorate Eliot's twenty-fifth anniversary as President
Fogg Museum completed
Gym built for Radcliffe College
First course offered in landscape architecture and city planning
Harvard Union established
Stillman Infirmary and first Radcliffe dormitory, Bertram Hall completed
School of Veterinary Medicine dissolved
Harvard Stadium opens, the first reinforced concrete stadium in the United States
Harvard honors Eliot on his seventieth birthday, March 20
University begins $2.5 million fund drive, its first great capital campaign
For the first time, graduating seniors number more than five hundred
Eliot arranges for the building of the Harvard Medical School in the Fenway
Eliot issues his annual report in which he attacks the game of football as detrimental to the morals of students
Langdell Hall built, Harvard Forest acquired
The Graduate School of Business opens formally as a graduate department of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences
Eliot sends in his resignation from the Harvard University presidency, October 26
Eliot's resignation takes effect

Series and Subseries in the Collection

  1. Biographical Materials
  1. Correspondence
  2. ___General Correspondence Group 1
  3. ___General Correspondence Group 2
  4. ___General Correspondence Group 3
  5. ___General Correspondence Group 4
  6. ___General Correspondence Group 5
  7. ___Letterbooks
  8. ___Shorthand Notes
  1. Appointments, Salaries, and Appropriations
  1. Gifts and Bequests
  1. Subject Files
  2. ___Harvard University Files
  3. ___Non-Harvard University Files
  1. Writings
  2. ___Addresses, Speeches, and Articles
  3. ___Inscriptions
  4. ___Briefs
  5. ___Drafts
  6. ___The Religion of the Future
  7. ___The Harvard Classics
  8. ___Publisher's Correspondence
  1. Academic Costumes

Acquisition Information

Most of papers in this collection were transferred by Charles W. Eliot to the Harvard University Archives, ca. 1890s to ca. 1920s. Additional materials were acquired through donation or purchase. Whenever possible the archivist noted the terms of acquisition in the folder lists below.

Acquisitions known to come from sources others than C. W. Eliot are as follows:

  1. 1901, H. Ernestine Ripley
  2. 1920s, Charles William Eliot
  3. 1931, Henry James
  4. 1932, Harris Kennedy
  5. 1933, Samuel A. Eliot
  6. 1934, Grace Eliot Dudley
  7. 1943, Jerome D. Greene
  8. 1953, W.A. Meyer
  9. 1958, James R. Reynolds
  10. 1959, Mrs. A.F. Wittem [Ellen H. Whittem, died 1962]
  11. 1964, Arthur Maas
  12. 1964, Samuel Eliot Morrison
  13. 1965, T. Roland Berner
  14. 1966, J.K. Wright
  15. 1967, Max Fisch
  16. 1974, Hite Lambert
  17. Accession number: 17358; 2006 May 15

Related Material

  1. Papers of Charles William Eliot, 1807-1945 (UAI 15.894):
  2. Eliot, Charles W. General folder (HUG 1359)
  3. Digitized images of Eliot are available in the inventory of Harvard University Archives Photograph Collection: Portraits, ca. 1852-ca. 2004 (HUP): under: Eliot, Charles William (HUP Eliot, Charles William) and through VIA Harvard's integrated online image catalog
  4. Search HOLLIS, Harvard's online library information system, for works by and about Charles William Eliot.

Inventory update

This document last updated 2022 March 31.

Processing Information

The papers of Charles William Eliot and the records of Eliot's Harvard presidency were first classified and described in the Harvard College Library shelflist as the Papers of Charles William Eliot (UAI 15.894) and Eliot Records (UAI 5.150). In 2006, archivist Dominic P. Grandinetti re-processed all of the Eliot material.

Re-processing started with properly identifying misclassified materials, so that all Eliot's papers were re-classified to UAI 15.894 and all the records of Eliot's presidential administration to UAI 5.150. The few exceptions to this are noted in the inventories. The archivist then rehoused all the material, eliminated old box numbers and old folders, renamed folders if necessary, established the series and subseries hierarchies, and created the inventories. Eliot’s initial transfers of material had been re-arranged several times since the 1920s and definitive evidence of original arrangement had long been lost. However, during the 2006 re-processing, the archivist attempted to maintain what remained of the original order. Exceptions are noted in the series descriptions.

As part of the Eliot project, the archivist created a map to old call numbers, box numbers, and folders that were eradicated. A link to this map is located at the end of the inventory. An online guide to the obsolete call numbers eradicated during processing is also available.

For more information about the early acquisition and processing of these papers see the Librarians' Files, 1897-1937, W.C. Lane, General Correspondence File, 1897-1928, Edw-EW, Box 16, UAIII

Harvard University. President's Office. Records of the President of Harvard University, Charles W. Eliot, 1869-1930 : an inventory
Harvard University Archives
Language of description

Repository Details

Part of the Harvard University Archives Repository

Holding nearly four centuries of materials, the Harvard University Archives is the principal repository for the institutional records of Harvard University and the personal archives of Harvard faculty, as well as collections related to students, alumni, Harvard-affiliates and other associated topics. The collections document the intellectual, cultural, administrative and social life of Harvard and the influence of the University as it emerged across the globe.

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