More than a century of discovery and service

The University of Illinois at Chicago traces its origins to several private health colleges that were founded in Chicago during the 19th century.

In the 20th century, new campuses were built in Chicago and later joined together to form a comprehensive learning community. In the last three decades, UIC has transformed itself into one of the top 60 research universities in the United States.

1859 to 1945: Early medical roots

Old photo of a group of men performing an operation

As part of the University of Illinois, UIC grew to meet the needs of the people of Illinois, but its deepest roots are in health care. The Chicago College of Pharmacy, founded in 1859, predated the Civil War is the oldest unit in the university. Other early colleges were the College of Physicians and Surgeons and the Columbian College of Dentistry.

These Chicago-based health colleges became fully incorporated in 1913 as the Colleges of Medicine, Dentistry and Pharmacy. The College of Pharmacy was the first pharmacy school west of the Alleghenies and emphasized laboratory instruction and research.

Dentistry became the first American dental school fully equipped with electric drills. The College of Medicine developed the country’s first occupational therapy program and grew rapidly to become the largest medical school in the U.S.

In the decades following incorporation, several other health science colleges were created. Together with the Colleges of Medicine, Dentistry and Pharmacy, they formed the Chicago Professional Colleges of the University of Illinois. In 1961, the professional colleges became the University of Illinois at the Medical Center.

1945 to 65: Navy Pier years

Historical photo of University of Illinois Navy Pier campus

Following World War II, the University of Illinois increased its presence in Chicago by creating a temporary, two-year branch campus on Navy Pier. The Chicago Undergraduate Division primarily accommodated student veterans on the G.I. Bill. The program allowed all students to complete their first two years of study in Chicago before going downstate to finish their undergraduate degrees at Urbana-Champaign.

The lakeside location earned the Navy Pier campus the name “Harvard on the rocks.” The university shared the 3,000-foot pier with other tenants that included the Chicago Police Department Traffic Division and several military detachments. At that time Navy Pier was not the bright, attractive venue it is today as Chicago’s leading tourist attraction. The pier was a dreary, functioning port facility. But because the pier had only a single corridor along its half-mile length, students were able to see their peers each day.

Former Mayor Richard J. Daley on a rooftop near Marina Towers

Richard J. Daley

Richard J. Daley envisioned and established a public university for the city of Chicago. UIC’s Richard J. Daley Library holds the late mayor’s personal and family archive and political papers of two other Chicago mayors.

1965 to 81: University of Illinois at Chicago Circle (UICC)

Historical photo of amphitheater at Circle Campus

After the war, and after the wave of returning veterans seeking education benefits under the G.I. Bill had passed through, demand for a public university in Chicago remained high. The university made plans to create a permanent, degree-granting campus in the Chicago area.

The site was a 100-acre parcel at the junction of Greektown and Little Italy. To accommodate a planned student body of 32,000 in such a small area, famed Chicago architect Walter Netsch arrayed the campus buildings in concentric rings, like a droplet of water.

The University of Illinois at Chicago Circle – named for the nearby ultra-modern freeway interchange – opened in February 1965. “Circle,” as it was called, was a degree-granting institution, with ambitions to become a great university. A member of the faculty proudly noted it was the first university to be named for a transportation feature since Oxford and Cambridge.

Within five years of the campus’s opening – a period during which it was the fastest growing campus in the country – enrollment grew from 5,000 to 18,000 and almost every department offered graduate degrees. Befitting the location of the campus at a crossroads of immigration, many of Circle’s students were first in their families to attend college – as are many of UIC’s students today.

Stanley Ikenberry

Stanley Ikenberry

Despite opposition fears of harming Circle’s urban mission or medical faculty reputations, former university president Stanley Ikenberry walked from the Medical Center to Circle Campus to signify his goal of unifying the two campuses. The new UIC was created in 1982 and within five years had attained Carnegie “Research I” classification.

1982 and on: University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC)

Aerial view of students on campus

UIC was born in 1982, when the Circle and Medical Center campuses consolidated to form a comprehensive university campus with six health science colleges and an academic medical center. Consolidation helped UIC reach elite Carnegie “Research I” status.

In 1993, then-UIC Chancellor (and later UI President) James Stukel launched the Great Cities Initiative to join UIC teaching and research with community, corporate and government partners in tackling urban challenges. Renamed the Great Cities Commitment at it’s ten-year mark, the signature program integrates research with genuine community engagement.

UIC’s newest residence hall opened in 2007 and was the capstone of UIC’s South Campus development, a public-private partnership that brought student housing, retail stores, restaurants and private residences to the historic Maxwell Street neighborhood. The influx of faculty and staff families and the expansion of student housing helped UIC change from a daytime commuter campus into a vibrant, 24-hour academic community. Today, about half of UIC freshmen and one-fourth of undergraduates live on campus.

Sparky D. Dragon cheering

UIC mascots

Navy Pier’s athletic teams were known as the “Chi-Illini.” The move to Circle campus brought a new identity as the “Chikas” in homage to the Chikasaw nation.

When UIC was created, students selected the “Flames” as team name, recalling the 1871 Chicago fire. Mascot Sparky D. Dragon has fired up fans for more than 20 years.