History of Tufts University
Tufts University’s Medford/Somerville campus sits on the colonized homelands of the Massachusett tribal people, who took their name from the Algonquian term describing the area visible from the Great Hill, now referred to as the Blue Hills that lie south of present-day Boston. The Massachusett came into contact with the Nipmuc to the west, the Pawtucket to the north, and Wampanoag to the south, related peoples who shared mutually intelligible languages. As an institution that benefits from the ownership of land once inhabited and cared for by Indigenous communities, Tufts has a responsibility to recognize this history and engage with the descendants and nations who represent the original peoples of what is now eastern Massachusetts.
Founding of Tufts University
In 1847, the Universalist Church organized an educational convention to discuss the potential establishment of a college for the Universalists. The first provisional Board of Trustees was selected and began working to raise funds and choose a site. Earlier in the decade, Charles Tufts, who had accumulated significant wealth and land holdings from his family’s brick manufacturing business, had donated 20 acres of land to the Church to be used for establishing a college. Tufts’ land included one of the highest hills in the Boston area, Walnut Tree Hill, straddling the cities of Medford and Somerville. After much debate among the Trustees, in 1851 the Medford land was selected as the site of Tufts College and Charles Tufts later donated an additional 80 acres to the campus.
As local lore has it, when a relative asked Charles Tufts what he would do with his land, and more specifically with “that bleak hill over in Medford,” Tufts replied, “I will put a light on it.” In 1855, a toast to the new Tufts College was offered at a Universalist gathering in Boston’s Faneuil Hall. Rev. Hosea Ballou 2d, minister of the First Universalist Church in Medford and the college's first president, remarked, “For if Tufts College is to be a source of illumination, as a beacon standing on a hill, where its light cannot be hidden, its influence will naturally work like all light; it will be diffusive.”
The nearest house on the Medford side of the Hill was the mansion of George L. Stearns. Stearns was among the “Secret Six” who helped finance John Brown's abolitionist rebellion at Harpers Ferry, Virginia in 1859. For a period, Stearns’ home served as a way station of the Underground Railroad, a network organized before the Civil War to assist the journey of enslaved people to freedom in Canada.
When the Commonwealth of Massachusetts chartered Tufts College in 1852, the original act of incorporation noted the college should promote “virtue and piety and learning in such of the languages and liberal and useful arts as shall be recommended.” Hosea Ballou 2d, elected as Tufts’ first president, spent much of 1853-1854 traveling within the United States and Europe visiting, observing, and studying other institutions’ approaches to undergraduate education and college administration. In 1854, the Trustees authorized faculty “to give instruction in the Latin and Greek languages and in Mathematics to such young men as desire to pursue those studies.” In Tufts’ earliest days, the original college building - which would eventually bear Ballou's name - served as both home and classroom for seven students, who were taught by four professors. By the time of Ballou's death in 1861, Tufts had 36 alumni and 53 students enrolled. Engineering instruction began at Tufts in 1865, with the introduction of a three-year degree in civil engineering.
The official college seal, bearing the motto “Pax et Lux” (Peace and Light), was adopted in 1857 and the student body selected the school colors of brown and blue in 1876. Tufts’ mascot became Jumbo the Elephant in 1885, when P.T. Barnum, circus showman and an early Trustee of Tufts, donated the stuffed hide of Jumbo to the college. Jumbo stood in Barnum Hall for 86 years until the building and elephant were destroyed in a fire in 1975.
In 1892, the Board of Trustees approved “that the College be opened to women in the undergraduate departments on the same terms and conditions as to men” and nine women enrolled that fall. This status changed in 1910, when women officially matriculated to Jackson College, a coordinate women's college associated with Tufts. In 1980, Tufts became officially co-educational once again.
The first identified Black graduate of Tufts College is Forrester Blanchard Washington, who graduated in 1909 and later served as director of the Atlanta School of Social Work, president of the NAACP Atlanta chapter, and a public policy advisor with the Federal Emergency Relief Administration under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Black Cabinet.”
During the late 19th and 20th centuries, Tufts grew from a small liberal arts college to a top-tier research university offering master’s, doctoral, and professional graduate programs. This growth includes the establishment of a medical school in 1893, an engineering school in 1898, a dental school in 1899, and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in 1933. In 1954, Tufts College became Tufts University. During the 1970s, French American nutritionist Jean Mayer became president and increased the endowment six-fold while expanding the university and establishing the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, and Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. In 2016, Tufts University acquired the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, with whom Tufts had partnered since 1945.
Today, Tufts is a student-centered research university that serves about 5,800 undergraduate students and 5,800 graduate students across campuses in Medford/Somerville, Boston, and Grafton, Massachusetts. Tufts no longer has a religious affiliation and students of all religious backgrounds worship in several sacred spaces, including Goddard Chapel, the 1882 Lombardic Romanesque chapel. We are proud to be home to a diverse community of students who represent a multitude of spiritual identities, racial and ethnic backgrounds, and geographic origins.