For decades, the University of Texas has stood as a leader in Texas and the nation for research and education. It has produced countless scholars as well as spirited rivalries in sporting contests since its inception. The creation of the university, however, took many years to come to fruition. Helping the University of Texas come to life and then nurturing it to becoming a success was the task of its first president, Ashbel Smith.
Smith was born in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1805. He attended the local public schools where he had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. Smith graduated from Yale University at age 19. He then taught school in North Carolina before returning to Yale to earn a medical degree.
He came to Texas in 1836, and in 1837, Sam Houston named him the first surgeon general of the Texas Army. Smith immediately instituted an advanced system of sanitation and established the first hospital in Harris County.
He also served as a respected diplomat, negotiating peace with the Comanches in 1842 and also serving as the Texas ambassador to Great Britain and France. He also served as the last Secretary of State for the Republic of Texas. Smith served three terms in the state legislature and co-founded the Texas Medical Society. In 1873, he helped establish the Texas MedicalCollege in Galveston.
In the meantime, plans for a great national university for the then-independent Republic of Texas had circulated since 1838. Nearly 300,000 acres were set aside in 1839 by the Texas Congress to fund this university. Unfortunately, political support for public higher education soon dried up.
By the 1870s, more than a dozen private colleges already existed across the state, mostly supported by churches. As Reconstruction ended, Texas leaders were determined to make the state a leader in commerce and education and wanted to establish a world-class university to demonstrate this new forward vision. The 1866 and 1876 state constitutions had provisions mandating the establishment of the University of Texas and providing that any public colleges created in the state would be under the university umbrella.
Smith, as a state legislator once again, pushed to make the university a reality. Finally, in 1881, the legislature passed the necessary acts to create UT. The university would include a school for the classic liberal arts, a law school, and a medical school. Voters chose Austin as the site of the main campus with Galveston as the site for the medical school.
Ashbel Smith as the first president of the University of Texas Board of Regents seemed an obvious choice to many. At the age of 76, he took up the task energetically, pushing for construction of buildings and personally recruiting professors.
Construction on the main building began in 1882 and barely finished in time for the university’s dedication. Smith officially opened the university on September 15, 1883, with eight professors and 221 students.
Smith simultaneously served as president of the Texas Medical Society and urged his fellow physicians to continue to see that the new medical school would become a reality for Texas. The TexasMedical College in Galveston was on life support itself, but Smith merged it with the new medical school for the University of Texas in 1891, giving it new life.
Smith died in 1886, hailed as the Father of Texas Medicine and the Father of the University of Texas. Today, the University of Texas itself boasts more 50,000 students and more than 150 buildings on the Austin campus. There are eight other universities in the UT system as well as six medical schools and an astronomical observatory.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.