The Lesser-Known Namesakes of 4 Selective Schools


You know the schools, but do you know the names behind them?

1. William Marsh Rice (Rice University, Houston, Tex.)

Wealthy Houston merchant and investor William Marsh Rice planned to leave most of his fortune to the development of a new university. But in 1900, he suffered a demise of the untimely variety when he wound up whacked by his valet. Conspiring in the murder was attorney Albert Patrick, who tried to claim the widower's fortune using a fake will. However, the would-be masterminds made the crucial mistake of trying to withdraw Rice's money using a badly forged check, and a suspicious bank employee blew the whistle. A trial ensued, convictions were handed down, and the money went to Rice University—albeit years earlier than Rice would have liked.

2. Ezra Cornell (Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.)

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It's safe to say Ezra Cornell got his start the hard way. After being laid off as a miller, he traveled both Maine and Georgia on foot (uphill both ways, in the snow, we imagine) selling farming-plow technology to local manufacturers. After meeting a man contracted to lay underground telegraph wires for Samuel F.B. Morse, Cornell developed a plow device to perform the job. Morse hired him as an assistant, and Cornell soon founded a telegraph company that came to be known as Western Union. More than a century after his death, Cornell's hardworking plow-salesman days are still remembered with the help of his footwear. In 1990, astronaut (and Cornell grad) G. David Lowe took the silk socks Cornell wore on his wedding day into outer space. We're just hoping he washed them first.

3. Leland Stanford (Stanford University, Palo Alto, Calif.)

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Stanford University isn't the only institution owing its creation to Leland Stanford. Turns out, Stanford was also part of the small group that started the California Republican Party. In addition to serving as president of the Central Pacific Railroad, he became the state's first GOP governor in 1861 and later served as a U.S. senator. Unfortunately, Stanford's son, Leland Jr., didn't live long enough to build a similar legacy, succumbing to typhoid at age 15. The senior Stanford and wife Jane started the university in their late son's name, proclaiming that "the children of California shall be our children." At least those with the grades to get in.

4. Washington Duke (Duke University, Durham, N.C.)

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The Civil War didn't exactly go well for Washington Duke. Not only was he drafted into the Confederate military (despite his opposing secession), but his farm tanked while he was away. Worse still, Duke spent the end of the war in a Union POW camp. Lucky for his post-war career, the public was craving tobacco, and his farm operations started making him a fortune. With business going so well, Duke was able to bequeath $100,000 to Trinity College upon its move to Durham in 1896. Of course, there was one "radical" condition: The school had to admit women. Later, in 1924, Washington's son donated another $40 million to Trinity in exchange for changing its name to Duke University.

This article was excerpted from the Scatterbrained section of a 2006 issue of mental_floss magazine, which was written by Kelly Ferguson, Jeff Fleischer, John Green, & David K. Israel.