The 13 Biggest Moments in UW-Madison History

Credit: Bryce Richter/UW-Madison

By Christina Lorey

July 20, 2023

There are anniversaries, and then there are demisemiseptcennials—a milestone 175 years in the making.


On July 26, 1848,  Wisconsin’s first governor and legislature officially created the University of Wisconsin. This summer kicks off a full year of celebrations that will run through the 2024 Commencement.


How Does the UW Compare to Other American Schools?

According to’s list of the 1,765 accredited four-year colleges, the UW is the 198th oldest university in the US.

Schools that top the list, like Harvard and William & Mary, have been around since the 1600s! Within the Big Ten, the UW falls near the middle of the pack, as the fifth oldest of the 14 schools. 

In honor of its 175th, let’s take a look back at the biggest years in UW history

1838 – Wisconsin’s territorial legislature passes a bill to create a University of Wisconsin “at or near Madison, the seat of the government.”

1848 – The state’s first governor, Nelson Dewey, approves the UW.

1849 – Professor Sterling holds the first class on February 5th, Founder’s Day.

1851 – North Hall opens as a classroom facility and men’s dormitory.

1877 – Former Governor Cadwallader Washburn gives the UW its first major gift: $43,000 to build an observatoryoverlooking Lake Mendota.

1885 – The UW Marching Band is founded.

1907 – The Wisconsin Union opens as one of the first college unions in the country (second only to Harvard.) 

1924 – Wisconsin General Hospital (known today as UW Hospital) opens.

1933 – The Memorial Union becomes the country’s first college union to serve beer (3.2% alcohol, or what Congress officially calls “nonintoxicating.”)

1968 – The first bone marrow transplant is performed at UW Hospital, using techniques created at the university.

1993 – Donna Shalala resigns as UW-Madison chancellor to become the US Secretary of Health and Human Services under President Clinton.

2001 – The UW starts using an Internet-based grading system.

2011 – The UW awards more than 10,000 degrees for the first time in one year.


Not only has the University of Wisconsin grown over the past 175 years–college life has changed. The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s archives department compiled a fantastic collection of photos showing how student housing has evolved through the years. 

READ: 34 Vintage Photos That Show How UW Dorms Have Changed

Credit: UW-Madison Archives

What About Bucky?

Our beloved mascot isn’t quite as old as his favorite college. Although various forms of badgers had been the university’s mascot for decades, “Bucky” was first drawn in 1940 and brought to life in 1949, when a student wore papier-mâché badger head [pictured below] to the homecoming football game.

And if you think some of the policies today’s politicians support are questionable, check this out: in 1973, Wisconsin’s assistant attorney general, Howard Koop, pushed for Bucky to be replaced by Henrietta Holstein, a lovable and productive cow. According to Koop, “Kids love cows. A generation could grow up supporting the university and Henrietta Holstein.”

Luckily, the effort to overthrow Bucky was bucked by both the school and its fans. 

Throwback Photos: The Evolution of Bucky Badger

Credit: UW-Madison Archives


  • Christina Lorey

    Christina is an Edward R. Murrow-winning journalist and former producer, reporter, and anchor for TV stations in Madison and Moline. When she’s not writing or asking questions, you can find her volunteering with Girls on the Run, the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, and various mental health organizations.

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