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History of the University

The University of Groningen has a long academic tradition extending back to 1614, which makes Groningen the oldest university in the Netherlands after Leiden. Many very talented people in a variety of disciplines have studied or worked at the university during the 400 years of its existence, including two Nobel Prize winners, the first female University student in the Netherlands and the first female lecturer, the first Dutch astronaut and the first president of the European Bank. They share their academic roots with more than 100,000 other people who have attended the University of Groningen as students, lecturers or research workers.

A fast growth

Ubbo Emmius, the first Rector Magnificus
Ubbo Emmius, the first Rector Magnificus

The young University of Groningen was already an outstanding example of an international community in the seventeenth century. Almost half of the students and lecturers came from outside the Netherlands – the first Rector Magnificus, Ubbo Emmius, was German, for instance – but at the same time there was already a close relationship between the university and the city and the surrounding region. The founding of the university – at that time still a college of higher education – was an initiative taken by the Regional Assembly of the city of Groningen and the Ommelanden, or surrounding region. There were four faculties – Theology, Law, Medicine and Philosophy. The first 75 years of its existence were very fruitful for the university with about 100 students enrolling every year.

The development of the university came to a standstill at the end of the seventeenth and during the eighteenth century because of theological differences of opinion, a difficult relationship with the Regional Assembly and political problems that included the siege of the city by ‘Bommen Berend’ in 1672. On average two to three hundred students were registered with the university at any one time during this period. Petrus Camper, though, was a shining academic example during the second half of the eighteenth century and was famous far beyond the city limits as an anatomist, a fighter against rinderpest and the founder of the first outpatient’s clinic for surgical medicine.

From National College of Higher Education to University

Academy building in 1850
Academy building in 1850

Opportunities and threats followed on each other’s heels during the nineteenth century. In 1815, at the same time as Leiden and Utrecht, the university gained recognition as a national college of higher education, but this was followed by discussions about closure. The situation improved markedly when a new main university building, the Academiegebouw, was constructed in 1850, a building that was largely financed by the people of Groningen. This made the fire that completely destroyed this building in 1906 even more poignant.

In the meantime, the Higher Education Act of 1876 had radically improved the position of the university, which was renamed the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen (RUG). Teaching now took place in Dutch as well as in Latin and the University was given a research as well as an educational duty. This laid the foundations for the present research university.

The University of Groningen developed apace during the first decades of the twentieth century. The number of faculties and courses grew steadily while the number of students showed an explosive growth. When the university celebrated its first 300 years in 1914 there were 611 registered students; this had already grown to 1000 by 1924. After a drop back during the Depression, and in particular during the Second World War, the number of students grew rapidly from 1945 to reach 20,000 in 1994. At the present time there are about 28,000 students registered at the University of Groningen with the number of foreign students again growing steadily, and following the tradition set by the first Rector Magnificus, the number of German students and researchers has grown strongly in recent years.

More information

  • More extensive information about the history of the university and the history of the student city Groningen is available on the website of the University Museum.
  • On the website of the University Museum you can also find a list of prominent professors, including the first rector Ubbo Emmius, Noble Prize laureate Frits Zernike and Noble Prize laureate Ben Feringa.
  • The Bernouilliborg, the Kapteyn Astronomical Institute, the Offerhauszaal, the Van Swinderen Huys – all these are named after former UG rectors. Want to know who else was rector of the University between Ubbo Emmius and Elmer Sterken? Take a look at the overview of all former UG rectors .
  • If you are curious to know more about the the origins of the university coat of arms, follow the link for a detailed description.

Unifocus videomagazine on the University history

  • Ubbo Emmius (1547-1625), first Rector Magnificus of the Groningen Academy and professor in Greek and History, contributed significantly to the establishment of the University (which was called the Academy).
  • Jean Barbeyrac (1674-1744), professor of public and private law, contributed greatly to the translation, organization, and criticism of writing on natural law in the 17th and 18th centuries.
  • Petrus Camper (1722-1789), doctor during the Enlightenment, contributed significantly to the improvement of Dutch healthcare.
  • Petrus Driessen (1753-1828), professor of chemistry, initiated chemistry as an independent science in the Netherlands.
  • Jacobus Cornelius Kapteyn (1851-1922), professor of astronomy, conducted ground-breaking research to chart the Milky Way.
  • Aletta Jacobs (1854-1929), the most famous Dutch representative of the first feminist wave, first female student and first female who gained a PhD and became a doctor.
  • Gerard Heymans (1857-1930), professor of philosophy and 'zielkunde', initiator of psychology in the Netherlands.
  • Leendert Daniel Eerland (1897-1977), professor of surgery, ensured that Groningen specialized and increased its knowledge in medicine and promoted the wide-reaching integration of diagnosis and treatment.
  • Anda Kerkhoven (1919-1945), University of Groningen student and member of the resistance in the Second World War.
  • The symbol of the imperial university, about the university during French rule.
Last modified:14 June 2019 2.50 p.m.
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