“Firsts” at Amherst College

Noah Webster, already well known from his textbooks and dictionaries, played a vital role in fundraising and in shaping the institution. He had served as a trustee of Amherst Academy since its incorporation in 1815, and was president of its Board of Trustees during the critical 1820–21 period, when Amherst College was formed.

Joseph Hardy Neesima, Class of 1870

Edward Jones, Class of 1826

A broad group of community members in and around Amherst, Mass., founded the Amherst Collegiate Institution for the “education of indigent young men of piety and talents for the Christian ministry” in 1821. Its first president, Zephaniah Swift Moore, had previously been president of Williams College, and the close relationship and rivalry between Amherst and Williams continues to this day. The Massachusetts Legislature granted Amherst College its charter in 1825—the same year that the college awarded degrees to its first class (of 25 seniors) and adopted its corporate seal and motto, Terras Irradient (“Let them enlighten the lands”).

From its start, Amherst showed awareness of and support for those who might not commonly have had access to higher education—for example, graduating its first African American student, Edward Jones, in 1826. Joseph Hardy Neesima of the Class of 1870 was the first Japanese student ever to graduate from a Western college and went on to found Doshisha University, Amherst's sister institution in Kyoto. The first two women to apply to the college, in 1871, were not admitted, but Trustee Henry Ward Beecher, Class of 1834, stated, “If a woman is fully qualified, [Amherst’s] doors will be open to her.” It took many decades, but those doors opened when the College began hiring women as tenure-track professors in 1962 and became coeducational in 1975. The inauguration of Biddy Martin as its first woman president constituted another milestone in Amherst’s increasing diversity and gender equality. 

Amherst’s other historical “firsts” include the world’s first intercollegiate baseball game, against Williams in 1859; the country’s first collegiate physical education and hygiene program, founded in 1860; and the nation’s first undergraduate neuroscience program, established in 1973. The first (and so far only) Amherst graduate to serve as president of the United States was Calvin Coolidge, Class of 1895. The poet Robert Frost, arguably the College’s best-known faculty member, arrived at Amherst in 1916 and taught here intermittently for more than 40 years.

Today, Amherst College is one of the nation’s premier liberal arts institutions, renowned for its dedicated faculty, open curriculum, generous financial aid policies, and scenic 1,000-acre campus. Its 1,700 students—talented young people from a wide array of backgrounds and more than 40 countries—can earn bachelor’s degrees in 41 fields of study. Through their work in science, education, law, medicine, politics, the arts, and other endeavors—and in their contributions to their families and communities—more than 20,000 Amherst alumni continue to “enlighten the lands.”

Photos courtesy of Amherst College Archives and Special Collections

A group of students gathered around the 1821 statue on the quad in front of the war memorial

An Amherst Timeline

See an interactive timeline of Amherst College milestones and notable moments, in our Bicentennial section. A text-based version of the timeline is also available.