Alma Mater: Early History

Most graduates think fondly of their Alma Mater. But Alma Mater means something more to Columbia students and graduates. Since the founding of King’s College in 1754, she has served as a human representation of the university’s mission. With the 1903 unveiling of Daniel Chester French’s bronze statue of the figure, Alma Mater became the school’s ambassador and most familiar symbol, greeting the thousands of visitors that entered the university’s gates. Perched on the steps of Low Library, the statue of Alma Mater bore witness to a century of rapid change on Columbia’s campus.

Yet Alma Mater has history much older than Columbia University itself. One can trace the term Alma Mater back to eleventh century Europe. Founded in 1088, the University of Bologna is considered to be the oldest western university. Its motto, “Alma Mater Studiorum,” (translated: “nourishing mother of studies”), is the first known use of the term in reference to the university from which one graduated.

When Samuel Johnson helped found King’s College in 1754, the term “alma mater” must have been well known to him. The first president of the university liked the concept of a nourishing mother of studies so much that he incorporated it into the school’s original seal, which he designed. Johnson gave Alma Mater a human form in his design for the seal. In the minutes of their 1755 meeting, the Trustees described Johnson’s seal in detail:

The College is represented by a Lady sitting in a Throne or Chair of State, with several children at her knees to represent the Pupils…One of them She takes by the hand with her left hand expressing her benevolent design of Conducting them to True Wisdom and Virtue…Out of her Mouth over her left Shoulder, goes a label with these words in Hebrew Letters - God is my Light…


Johnson’s depiction of Alma Mater reflected common eighteenth century ideals about womanhood, and motherhood in particular. As the century progressed colonials, and later, Americans, envisioned a new role for white women. “Republican Mothers” performed an essential civic duty for their country by nurturing and educating virtuous young sons who would become the future political and academic leaders of the colonies (and, later, the young country). Johnson’s seal reflected this eighteenth-century reverence of mothers’ fundamental educative power. 

This image of Alma Mater continued to resonate after the Revolution when the college reopened in 1784; the seal remained exactly the same except for the replacement of “King’s College” with its new name, “Columbia College.”

Content written by Julie Golia, PhD 2010