University of Wisconsin–Madison

Our 150-Year History

Our interactive timeline showcases just a few of the history makers — 150 years of people, places and ideas — that distinguish UW Law from all the rest.

Timeline

1868

First UW Law classes held

Madison's Capitol building in 1868

The first UW Law School classes were held in 1868 in the State Capitol Building, shown here before the construction of its dome. (Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society)

1885

Belle Case La Follette, first female graduate

Belle Case La Follette, who graduated in 1885, holds a prominent place in U.S. history as a suffragist, women’s peace party member and co-founder (with husband Robert La Follette) of The Progressive Magazine.

1889

Dean Edwin Bryant

Dean Edwin Bryant

“The established lawyer is always a public man, and his influence on affairs is always more or less potent. His office well-stocked with books, is one from which no fitful gust of the popular will can turn him out. His income is not precarious, nor his independence fettered. He is above the wiles of the politician or the caprice of the populace.”

Edwin Bryant, dean from 1889 to 1903, in his farewell address to the Class of 1891

1891

First Law Building established

1893 Law Building

In 1891, the state legislature appropriated funds for the construction of a law building on UW-Madison’s Bascom Hill. The new building opened in September 1893.

 

1892

William Green, first African-American graduate

William Green

After graduating from UW Law School in 1892, William Green (1860-1911) practiced law in Milwaukee and was a leader in the community’s civil rights movement. In Howell v. Litt, he became the first black attorney to argue (and win) a case before the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The case led to the creation of the Wisconsin Civil Rights Act of 1895.

1893

Law Library Opened its Doors

Law Library Reading Room in 1914

Prior to the opening of UW Law’s first permanent Law Library in 1893–the same year the first Law Building opened on Bascom Hill–many had complained about the inadequacy of the school’s library collection and services. In fact, when the Board of Regents created the UW’s College of Law in 1868, no money had been appropriated for books.

1903

Dean Harry S. Richards

Dean Harry S. Richards

Harry S. Richards, dean from 1903 to 1929, memorialized at his death in a 1929 Wisconsin Law Review tribute:

“The great work of his life was the law school of the University of Wisconsin. When he came to this school as dean in 1903, he found a school of position and standing, but one which was committed quite generally to the older method of teaching; a method which was just beginning to be displaced by the new, and in the displacing of which, in the West, Mr. Richards was one of the prominent leaders.”

1917

First cane toss

UW Law’s Homecoming cane toss began in 1917 — or did it? The late Professor William Page claimed he introduced the annual rite of passage for third-year law students that year, after he joined the faculty. But others say the tradition began in 1922, when the first group of World War I veterans graduated. Either way, 3Ls still observe the tradition at every UW Homecoming game.

1920

Wisconsin Law Review

UW Law students and faculty founded the Wisconsin Law Review, but it wasn’t until 1935 that students became sole editors. The journal’s original purpose was laid out in its first publication in October 1920:

“Its publication has been undertaken in the hope that a discussion of legal problems, with particular application to State law, will be of service to the bench and the bar and the people of the state, and that a survey of the present condition of Wisconsin law will contribute in some measure to its scientific development.”

 

1929

Dean Oliver Rundell

Dean Oliver Rundell

UW Law School alumni Oliver Rundell was acting dean for two separate terms before serving officially as dean between 1945 and 1953. At his death in 1958, law faculty published “memorial resolutions” in the Wisconsin Law Review, which included this excerpt:

“Two devotions shaped Oliver Rundell’s professional life: first, service to the University as a teacher and administrator; second, study of the law of property, the focus of his teaching and research, in order to clarify whatever was obscure, and to make it a better servant of human needs.”

1932

Dean Lloyd K. Garrison

Dean Lloyd K. Harrison

Besides serving as UW Law dean from 1932 to 1945, Lloyd K. Garrison also led a number of governmental organizations, including the National Labor Relations Board and the National War Labor Board. He briefly served as special assistant to the United States Attorney General.

1942

John Steuart Curry mural completed in 1942

Curry mural

Law Dean Garrison, the great-grandson of famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, commissioned John Steuart Curry’s iconic ‘Freeing of the Slaves’ for UW’s Law Library after the U.S. Department of Justice rejected it as controversial. Garrison felt a strong connection to the work:

“Here is one of the great events in our constitutional history, an event fashioned in the midst of a national crisis by a great lawyer-president. The mural not only symbolizes that event but proclaims in a noble and patriotic setting the dignity and freedom of all persons, however humble, in a democracy whose ideals of liberty are summed up and protected by the constitution.”

1951

Vel Phillips, first female African American graduate

Vel Phillips

After earning her law degree in 1951, Vel Phillips went on to become the first woman to serve on Milwaukee’s Common Council, the first woman judge in Milwaukee County and the first African American judge in Wisconsin. She campaigned nationally for civil rights, waging a historic fair housing battle in Milwaukee. When Phillips died in 2018 at 95, she was eulogized in newspapers around the nation, including this New York Times obituary.

1953

Dean John Ritchie

Dean John Ritchie

John Ritchie, UW Law dean from 1953 to 1957, also led the law schools of Washington University in St. Louis and Northwestern University.

“Probably a law school is at its best in educating the student to think clearly and exactly, to analyze and synthesize, to sift the relevant from the irrelevant, to beware of over-generalizing and to seek constantly for the reasons in policy and doctrine underlying legal rules and principles. In short, to think like a lawyer.”

 

1958

Dean George H. Young

Dean George H. Young

George H. Young, a 1941 UW Law graduate, served as dean from 1958 to 1968. According to an article in the Summer 1999 issue of The Gargoyle alumni magazine:

“As Dean, George Young would ask individual faculty members, ‘What can I do to help you achieve your goal?’ His approach was to build a strong faculty and then give them the support needed to achieve important teaching and research goals.”

 

1959

Professor Marygold Melli, first female faculty member

Marygold Melli
As UW Law’s first woman tenure-track professor, Marygold Shire Melli (1926-2018) laid the groundwork for UW Law’s family law concentration, adding a wide range of courses to the original two-credit offering (then known as ‘domestic relations’). Melli pursued her interest in family law soon after joining the faculty in 1959, in spite of being warned “there was no law in it;” she went on to shape both pedagogy and policy, particularly in the areas of child support and shared child custody.

1963

A mascot is born

Law School gargoyle on loader

In 1963, when the existing Law School was demolished to make way for a new building, Dean George Young found and rescued a sandstone gargoyle from the rubble. It was one of a pair of gargoyles that had sat on the roof of the 1893 building for nearly 70 years. That gargoyle, which became a symbol of the Law School, is on permanent display in the atrium. The second gargoyle, originally believed to have been destroyed during the 1963 demolition, was recovered in 2018 after spending nearly 70 years with the Paul Been ’53 family.

1967

LEO Program Begins

LEO students

Launched in 1967, the Legal Education Opportunities Program has become a national model for recruiting and retaining students of color. Commonly known as LEO, the trailblazing program has graduated more than 1,500 attorneys, who actively serve their legal communities in a multitude of ways. As role models, mentors, and scholarship donors, LEO alumni also support the next generation of lawyers. (Pictured, a group of LEO students in 2017, the 50th anniversary of the program.)

1968

Dean Spencer L. Kimball

Dean Spencer L. Kimball

“The difference between a good and a poor lawyer, more than anything else, is his capacity to learn for himself what he needs to know.”

Spencer Kimball, dean from 1968 to 1972

1969

Professor James Jones, first African American faculty member

Professor James Jones

After receiving his J.D. from UW Law in 1956, Jim Jones (1924-2014) moved to Washington, D.C. to serve as an attorney with the U.S. Department of Labor. There, he worked on historic legislation, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Philadelphia Plan, a groundbreaking affirmative action program for government contractors. He returned to the Law School in 1969, when he became its first African American faculty member. He was a scholar of labor law and industrial relations, which he taught until his retirement in 1997.