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Who Was Cornell?


Charles Milhauser

A misunderstanding by founder George Bowman led to the naming of Cornell College after William Cornell (seen here in an oil painting reproduction from Cornell’s permanent collection), who co-owned the largest iron works in the world and was deemed to have a “beautiful character.”

This Iowa school would have opened in 1857 as The Mount Vernon College if its founder and chief fund-raiser, the Rev. George Bowman, had not gone to New York City in 1854-55 and called on, in today’s jargon, a hot prospect.

William Cornell seemed the perfect benefactor. At the age of 19, he converted to Methodism, was superintendent of a “colored” Sunday school at the age of 25, was known to contribute generously to Methodist charities, and was extremely rich. William and his brother, John Black Cornell, owned the largest iron works in the world. The company specialized in erecting fireproof buildings, among which was the New York Stock Exchange. Bowman, deeming William to have a “beautiful character,” returned to Iowa and assured the trustees that William would endow the college. The board inquired no further and duly voted in July 1855 to name the projected college (founded in 1853 as the Iowa Conference Seminary) for Cornell.

Although William had given Bowman a few hundred dollars and good wishes, he never intended to bankroll the new college. Bowman had misunderstood. William’s name had been used without his knowledge or consent and when he learned the fact he was offended, according to President William Fletcher King, “partly because he had not been consulted and partly because the Institution was presumably insignificant.”

In 1866 William Cornell had a change of heart and gave the college $1,000 for library books. The transaction was through an intermediary as William hoped—unsuccessfully—to remain anonymous, doubtless in order not to be asked for more money. President King then called on him “frequently,” and each time received a few hundred dollars. In 1868 he gave $1,500 worth of books. On his death bed, William asked for a lawyer in order to change his will to include the college. Before this could be done, he died.

The college next cultivated his elder brother and business partner, John, to no avail. In 1883, still optimistic that the Cornell family would endow the school, the college hung a portrait of William in the chapel. The next year John Cornell gave $5,000 toward the construction of Bowman Hall but asked the school to change its name as “the family had not done enough to justify the honor.”

William Cornell (1823-70) was a fifth cousin once removed of Ezra Cornell (1807-1874), although neither was aware of their kinship. Ezra began his career as a mill manager in Ithaca, N.Y., teamed with Samuel Morse, and eventually made a fortune in the telegraph business and became the largest stockholder in Western Union. He gave $500,000 toward the founding of the university. Thus began a confusion that still exists between the Iowa college that has called itself Cornell since 1857 and Cornell University, which held its first classes in 1868. Ezra was surprised when he learned that there was another school named Cornell and wrote to President King in 1870 “inquiring who this college was named after and what was the date of its founding.” Ezra offered to pay the college to change its name. President King stood firm on seniority.

The Cornell family was descended from Thomas Cornell, who emigrated to America in 1638 from Essex, England. Thomas spelled his name Cornhill, but subsequent generations altered it to the more socially elegant Cornwell or Cornell.

Charles Milhauser is classics professor and registrar emeritus.


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