The College Reaches 343rd Birthday, But Nobody Celebrates--Or Even Knows

Harvard celebrated its 343rd birthday yesterday, but nobody knew--not even President Bok.

Bok said last night he had been unaware of the month and day of the founding of the College. Claiming that he had nothing profound to say on the occasion, he added, "There's something about 343 that just doesn't ring my bell."

"I'll mark it down on my calendar and I'll have something pithy to say about the 344th," he said.

Trouble From the Start

Harvard's first year was a calamitous one. Its first professor, Nathanial Eaton--who taught all 20 students by himself--was later convicted in General Court for "cruell and barbaros beating" of students. He tearfully repented, but the court recalled that he had beaten one student nearly to death and discharged him.

Reminded of this incident, Bok noted last night that one Harvard president had fathered an illegitimate child and added, "The standard of morality of Harvard presidents has gone up, although it ill becomes me to say so."

Harvard was founded on Oct. 28, 1636, when the Boston General Court approved a motion to spend 400 pounds to found a college in the area. It was not a hot issue--the motion was the last item on a busy schedule that included prohibiting the sale of lace and awarding five pounds to a sailor who lost an eye while on a voyage to Block Island.

An Early Fund Drive

The school opened two years later, bolstered by a contribution of 779 pounds from John Harvard. It began as a farm-house in the middle of Cowyard Row (now the Yard), and steam and smells from cow manure regularly wafted through the classrooms.

Although Harvard was founded as a school for the ministry, its alumni almost immediately began their historic association with public policy issues. William Stoughton of the class of 1650 was chief justice and prosecuter at Salem witchcraft trials, and a number of other alumni were heavily involved in the trials, including one who was hanged for witch-craft.

President Increase Mather later held a ceremonial book burning in the Yard, expunging a book that discussed Cotton Mather's role in the witchcraft trials.

The three threads that most clearly extend back to the early days of Harvard are grumblings about food, concern about townies and pranks.

Sympathy For...

While president of Harvard, Henry Dunster was once called back from a journey to Concord by an urgent messenger who reported that some students had actually succeeded in raising the devil. Dunster dealt harshly with Satan--he blew up a pile of gunpowder in the Yard to exorcise the devil.

Food was reportedly inedible from the start and in 1767 it was so bad the students staged a rebellion that alarmed the Fellows considerably.

The College day began at sunrise with morning prayers and a breakfast of bread and beer. Students were never permitted to leave their rooms without their coat, gown or cloak, and the administration looked askance at students with long hair, curled hair, and even parted hair