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History, Politics & Society
Harvard University
Stanford University

Did Leland Stanford originally attempt to have a building built at Harvard to honor his son but was rebuffed and built his own university?

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August 20, 2007 3:13PM

http://www.stanford.edu/home/stanford/history/begin.html You may have heard a story that a lady in "faded gingham" (Jane Stanford) and a man dressed in a "homespun threadbare suit" (Leland Stanford) went to visit the president of Harvard, were rebuffed, and as a result, went on to found their own university in Palo Alto. This untrue story is an urban myth, and Stanford's archivist has prepared a response for those desiring more information: For what it is worth, there was a book written by the then Harvard president's son that may have started the twist on actual events. Leland Stanford Junior was just short of his 16th birthday when he died of typhoid fever in Florence, Italy on March 13, 1884. He had not spent a year at Harvard before his death, nor was he "accidentally killed." Following Leland Junior's death, the Stanfords determined to found an institution in his name that would serve the "children of California." Detained on the East Coast following their return from Europe, the Stanfords visited a number of universities and consulted with the presidents of each. The account of their visit with Charles W. Eliot at Harvard is actually recounted by Eliot himself in a letter sent to David Starr Jordan (Stanford's first president) in 1919. At the point the Stanfords met with Eliot, they apparently had not yet decided about whether to establish a university, a technical school or a museum. Eliot recommended a university and told them the endowment should be $5 million. Accepted accounts indicate that Jane and Leland looked at each other and agreed they could manage that amount. The thought of Leland and Jane, by this time quite wealthy, arriving at Harvard in a faded gingham dress and homespun threadbare suit is quite entertaining. And, as a former governor of California and well-known railroad baron, they likely were not knowingly kept waiting for too long outside Eliot's office. The Stanfords also visited Cornell, MIT and Johns Hopkins. The Stanfords established two institutions in Leland Junior's name -- the University and the Museum, which was originally planned for San Francisco, but moved to adjoin the university.