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About Milwaukee-Downer College

Milwaukee-Downer College was a pioneering institution for women’s education, continuing Milwaukee Female College’s close association with pioneering educator Catharine Beecher. In 1889, Wisconsin Female College changed its name to Downer College, in honor of Judge Jason Downer, associate justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, its trustee and benefactor. Two strong presidents led Milwaukee-Downer through most of its history, Ellen Clara Sabin, from 1895 to 1921, and Lucia Russell Briggs, from 1921 to 1951.

In 1964, Downer’s 43-acre eastside Milwaukee campus was sold to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and 49 female students and 21 faculty members transferred to Lawrence. Forty-four of the original 49 Milwaukee-Downer students eventually earned bachelor’s degrees from Lawrence, and 11 of the faculty members remained at Lawrence until retirement.

To learn more about the history of Milwaukee-Downer College, check out The Milwaukee-Downer Woman, published by Lawrence University press in 1997, Times and Traditions: Milwaukee-Downer College, 1848-1964, or Milwaukee-Downer College photos in the archives.

Milwaukee-Downer and Lawrence University

Lawrence counts more than 1,600 living Milwaukee-Downer graduates among its alumnae.

Several items of historical and sentimental value from Milwaukee-Downer have been transplanted to Lawrence’s Appleton campus, including:

  • The sundial from Merrill Hall, which was moved to the south side of Main Hall by the Milwaukee-Downer Class of 1932
  • The Teakwood Room from Chapman Memorial Library on the Downer campus, which was dismantled piece-by-piece and reassembled in Jason Downer Commons
  • The Chapman Library’s rare book collection, along with other items of Milwaukee-Downer memorabilia, is housed in the Milwaukee-Downer Room of the Seeley G. Mudd Library
  • A beloved grove of Hawthorn trees, known as Hawthornden, has been recreated in Appleton, near Colman Hall
  • And, Lucia R. Briggs Hall, named for the second president of Milwaukee-Downer College, was dedicated in 1997 as the home of Lawrence’s mathematics and social science departments.

Of the approximately 900 colleges founded in the U.S. before the Civil War, fewer than 200 exist today. Lawrence University represents three of those surviving institutions. The college was formed in 1964 through the consolidation of Lawrence College (1847) and Milwaukee-Downer College, itself the result of the 1895 merger of Milwaukee Female College (1851) and Downer College (founded as Wisconsin Female College in 1855). These institutions remain an important part of the college’s history.

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