About Lehigh Menu

You are here

About Lehigh

History

Lehigh University’s history is closely related to the rise of America as an industrial power. The vision of our founder, Asa Packer, an industrial pioneer, entrepreneur and philanthropist, set the foundation for generations of students to learn and live among the nation’s brightest scholars.

In 1865, Packer, president of Lehigh Valley Railroad, presented a $500,000 gift to build a university that would contribute to the “intellectual and moral improvement” of men in the Lehigh Valley. It was the largest donation of its kind to any educational institution in America at that time. The site that Packer chose for his university was a railroad junction across the Lehigh River from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, a community founded in 1741 by Moravian missionaries. The site was selected in part because it was within walking distance for managers of the Lehigh Valley Railroad.

Packer and his associates designed the school to chiefly focus on mathematics and science education, but provide pupils with a sufficient knowledge of classics. He knew, as did many others, that a strong national economy depended on more than technical skills. It needed people broadly educated in the liberal arts and sciences — people who could combine practical skills with informed judgments and strong moral self-discipline. He kept this in mind when founding the university.

In Lehigh's inaugural year, 39 men were admitted as students. Of the 39 students, one was a Civil War veteran from Lancaster, Pa.; 10 were from Bethlehem, Pa.; seven came from Mauch Chunk, Pa.; seven came from Tamaqua, Pa., and other places in the anthracite regions; three were from Philadelphia; one from Barbados; and the remaining 10 hailed from other places in the eastern states.

A Tradition of Excellence

Now, 150 years later, Lehigh is still honoring this proud heritage as it looks ahead to the future. What began as a home for 39 eager young scholars is now a thriving university of more than 4,600 undergraduate and 2,000 graduate students.

Lehigh’s history is an ongoing process that continues with each generation of Lehigh students, leaders and faculty who take the past and leave their distinct mark for the future. From the first class of students who arrived on South Mountain to the class of 2015, Lehigh has maintained its tradition of excellence while keeping in step with a dynamic world.

-Taken in part from Lehigh University: A History of Education in Engineering, Business and the Human Condition, by W. Ross Yates

Past Presidents

  • Henry Coppee

    (1866-1875)

    Henry Coppee worked as a railroad engineer in Georgia, served as a captain in the Army during the Mexican War, and taught at West Point and the University of Pennsylvania before becoming Lehigh's first president in 1866. During Coppee's tenure, a Moravian church on Packer Avenue was remodeled into Christmas Hall; a house for the president was erected; and Packer Hall, the university center, was built.

    Read full biography >

  • John McDowell Leavitt

    (1875-1880)

    John Leavitt was an Episcopal clergyman who graduated from Jefferson College and taught at Kenyon College and Ohio University. During his incumbency, Lehigh was divided into two schools, General Literature and Technology; the master of arts, doctor of philosophy and doctor of science degrees were established; and the Linderman Library rotunda was completed.

    Read full biography >

  • Robert Alexander Lamberton

    (1880-1893)

    Robert Lamberton graduated from Dickinson College and served as a Lehigh trustee before becoming president. During his administration, students and the community witnessed the first Mustard and Cheese dramatic presentation; a gymnasium, which became Coppee Hall, was erected; and Chandler Chemistry Laboratory, now known as Chandler-Ullmann Hall, was built.

    Read full biography >

  • Thomas Messinger Drown

    (1895-1904)

    Thomas Drown studied medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and later became professor of chemistry at Lafayette College. Despite the Panic of 1893, which decimated Lehigh's stock holdings in the Lehigh Valley Railroad, Lehigh managed to grow in enrollment and academics. A degree in arts and engineering was established, as was the department of zoology and biology.

    Read full biography >

  • Henry Sturgis Drinker '71

    (1905-1920)

    Henry Drinker was a lawyer and a mechanical engineer by trade, and also an 1871 Lehigh graduate and the first alumnus to become president. This connection drove Drinker to establish the alumni endowment fund, the Alumni Bulletin and the Alumni Association.

    Read full biography >

  • Charles Russ Richards

    (1922-1935)

    Charles Richards was dean of the College of Engineering and director of the Experimental Engineering Department at the University of Illinois before becoming president. Lehigh faced a shortage of students during the Depression, but the newly established office of admissions, as well as university scholarships, fellowships and deferred tuition payments, helped ease the decline.

    Read full biography >

  • Clement C. Williams

    (1935-1944)

    Clement Williams, a civil engineer, was president when undergraduate enrollment first passed 2,000 students and a graduate school implementing programs in the three colleges was created. Richards and Drinker residential houses; the Ullmann wing of the Chandler Chemistry Laboratory; and Grace Hall, the first arena-type facility on campus, were built.

    Read full biography >

  • Martin Dewey Whitaker

    (1946-1960)

    Martin Whitaker was once director of the Atomic Energy Commission Laboratory. During Whitaker's tenure, Lehigh's assets nearly tripled and the endowment more than doubled to $18 million. Many buildings were renovated, and the Dravo House and McClintic-Marshall House residence halls were built. Packer Hall was renovated and enlarged, and became the University Center in 1958.

    Read full biography >

  • Harvey A. Neville

    (1961-1964)

    Harvey Neville joined Lehigh in 1927 as an assistant professor of chemistry and was the only faculty member ever elected president. During his three-year presidency, the first phase of the Saucon Valley athletic complex was completed; Sayre Field was opened atop South Mountain; and the Center for Information and Computing Science was established.

    Read full biography >

  • W. Deming Lewis

    (1964-1982)

    W. Deming Lewis became president after a distinguished career as a space engineer and research administrator. Lewis came from a family that traces its American roots to William Lewis, an Englishman who settled in Massachusetts in 1640. His great-grandfather and grandfather were presidents of the Lewis Manufacturing Co., a textile firm in Walpole, Mass. His father owned Riverside Mills in Augusta, Ga.

    Read full biography >

  • Peter Likins

    (1982-1997)

    Peter Likins, who served as provost at Columbia University before becoming president, sought to complete the "transformation" of Lehigh that began under Deming Lewis. The university dedicated the Zoellner Arts Center; the Rauch Business Center became home to the College of Business and Economics; and Lehigh doubled its size with the purchase of the 800-acre Mountaintop Campus.

    Read full biography >

  • William C. Hittinger '44

    (1997-1998)

    William Hittinger graduated from Lehigh in 1944 with a degree in metallurgical engineering and was a former chairman of the university's board of trustees. As interim president after the departure of Peter Likins, Hittinger realigned the Iacocca Institute into the College of Business and Economics.

    Read full biography >

  • Gregory C. Farrington

    (1998-2006)

    Gregory Farrington had been dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Pennsylvania. At Lehigh, Farrington championed breaking down disciplinary walls and developing creative uses of information technology to improve student learning.

    Read full biography >

  • Alice P. Gast

    (2006-2014)

    Alice Gast was the first woman president of Lehigh. Prior to her appointment, Gast served as vice president for research and associate provost at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Under Gast’s leadership, Lehigh opened the STEPS building, started the Mountaintop Project and more.

    Read full biography >

  • Kevin Clayton '84 '13P

    (2014-2015)

    Before serving as interim president, Kevin Clayton earned a degree in government from Lehigh in 1984 and served on Lehigh’s Board of Trustees. Clayton’s authenticity as an alumnus and Lehigh parent brought an unparalleled energy to the President’s Office. He returned to his role as Vice Chair of the Board of Trustees following his year on campus.

    Read full biography >

Our Founder

Lehigh founder Asa Packer was a true risk-taker.

Packer came from humble beginnings. He worked as a carpenter and a farmer, but he eventually made his money by building and operating canal boats along the Lehigh Canal.

Packer took a financial risk in the early 1850s when he financed construction of a new Lehigh Valley Railroad. As the canals withered, the Lehigh Valley Railroad prospered and Packer’s wealth continued to grow.

Packer was active, too, in politics and public life: He became a state lawmaker, then Carbon County judge, then a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

In 1865, Packer donated 57 acres of land on South Mountain and $500,000 — the largest gift to any educational facility at the time — to establish Lehigh University.  

Packer died May 17, 1879.  That same year, in October, the university celebrated its first Founder's Day. The tradition continues.

Special Collections

Special Collections

Visit Special Collections’ university archives  or the Brown and White archives to read more about Lehigh history.