Today we remember how Harvard College was established in 1636 by vote of the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It was named after deceased clergyman John Harvard, who had left the school half of his monetary estate and his library of some 400 volumes. Harvard University considers him the most honoured of its founders—whose efforts and contributions in its early days ensured its permanence —and a statue in his honour is a prominent feature of Harvard Yard. It is the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States and among the most prestigious in the world. Its development has been staggering, Harvard's endowment is now valued at almost $42 billion, making it the largest globally of any academic institution. The Harvard Library is the world's largest academic library system, comprising 79 individual libraries holding about 20.4 million items.
Harvard has never been affiliated with any particular denomination, though many of its earliest graduates went on to become clergymen in Congregational and Unitarian churches. John Harvard died childless, and had inherited considerable sums from his father, mother, and brother. In an oral will spoken to his wife he bequeathed to the school £780—equivalent to £122,ooo today. To give a sense of what that wealth meant, this bequest was roughly equal to the Massachusetts Bay Colony's annual tax receipts. The colony began in 1628 and initially had good relationships with the local Indians, but frictions developed which later led to different wars. The Colony was economically successful, trading with England, Mexico and the West Indies and about 20,000 people migrating to New England in the 1630s. The population was strongly Puritan, and governed by a small group of leaders strongly influenced by Puritan teachings that showed little tolerance for other religious views, including Anglican, Catholic, Quaker, and Baptist theologies. In 1638, it acquired British North America's first known printing press. A publication five years later gave the school's purpose as "to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity, dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches when our present ministers shall lie in the dust." It offered a classic curriculum based on the English university model—many leaders in the colony had attended the University of Cambridge—but conformed to the tenets of Puritanism and trained many Puritan ministers in its early years. It wasn’t until 1708, when John Leverett became the first president who was not also a clergyman, marking a turning of the college away from Puritanism and toward intellectual independence
Harvard was born and raised in Southwark, in London, the fourth of nine children. His father was a butcher and tavern owner, and a warden of the parish church. His Mother was from Stratford-upon-Avon where his grandfather had served on the borough corporation's council with John Shakespeare. His grandparents' house in Stratford-upon-Avon, largely rebuilt after a fire of 1595, survives as 'Harvard House'. Sadly the bubonic plague reduced his immediate family to only his brother Thomas, and his mother. Left with property, Harvard's mother was able to send him to Emmanuel College, Cambridge. After studies he was ordained a dissenting minister. After marriage the couple emigrated to New England, where Harvard became a freeman of Massachusetts and, settling in Charlestown, a teaching elder and assistant preacher of the First Church there. He died in 1638 of tuberculosis and in 1828, Harvard University alumni erected a granite monument to his memory after his gravestone disappeared during the American Revolution.
Harvard University has since had 161 alumni, faculty, and researchers who have won Nobel Prizes, more than any other university in the world. Its alumni also include eight U.S. presidents and 188 living billionaires, and alumni have also won 10 Academy Awards, 48 Pulitzer Prizes, and 108 Olympic medals, and they have founded many notable companies.