Location, Location, Location.
For 150 years, Chatham’s spot nestled between the Shadyside and Squirrel Hill neighborhoods has provided a vantage point – and opportunities – you can’t find anywhere else.
In order to properly tell the story of Chatham’s identity, you must honor the significance of place. Chatham’s cove-like structure sometimes lends itself to being self-contained, separate from the bustling Steel City. The interwoven nature of Chatham and Pittsburgh is apparent in three movements of transformation: education, health science, and sustainability. The city that replaced its steel-oriented identity with “eds and meds” in the eighties and nineties renewed its commitment to sustainability in 2017. Chatham’s own evolution parallels that of Pittsburgh—from founding one of the first women’s colleges in the country in 1869 to breaking ground on one of the first campuses devoted entirely to sustainable education in 2010, all the while providing innovative and outstanding health sciences education. These three pillars have enabled exponential growth throughout Pittsburgh and within Chatham.
Each era of Chatham’s institutional identity—Pennsylvania Female College (PFC), Pennsylvania College for Women (PCW), Chatham College, and Chatham University—is synonymous with its own educational mission. While PFC began the exploration of women’s education, PCW solidified its integrity and validity as a force for women’s empowerment. Chatham College sought greater recognition and respect from its peers. Chatham University rewrote the playbook and expanded its horizons.
Throughout the nineteenth century, scholars traveled the country to implore intellectual leaders to engage a relatively untapped resource—women. In 1869, the University of Pittsburgh had already existed for nearly 100 years, though it had only educated men thus far. When the prospect of educating the city’s women arose, educated, middle-class men throughout Pittsburgh recognized the value of such a pursuit. The founders of PFC were predominantly Presbyterian—a strong faith tradition in Western Pennsylvania whose disciples founded a majority of Pennsylvania’s early colleges .
The decision to build a women’s college in Pittsburgh was viewed as a power move for the city itself . PFC’s first class came from predominantly Pittsburgh neighborhoods—East Liberty, Oakland, Squirrel Hill, and more . In the early days, the curriculum was non-denominational and educated students broadly in languages, arts, sciences, and literature . The goal was not to provide vocational skills or build a female workforce. Instead, PFC founders sought to provide a well-rounded education that would be of use to nineteenth century women, suiting them in a variety of capacities typical to their daily lives.
A hub for women’s education in Pittsburgh would keep women in the city, rather than forcing them to pursue education elsewhere. As a result, educated women became an integral part of the city’s modern trajectory.
As PFC began the pursuit of women’s education, the population of Pittsburgh more than tripled over 30 years . This sudden influx of populations in need, often immigrants or impoverished families, triggered discussions of how to best serve these communities. Chatham women began to participate in more complex discussions of the culture—they wanted to contribute and they wanted to serve .
In 1890, the students and alumnae of PFC petitioned the college to change its name to Pennsylvania College for Women (PCW) . Though the majority of PCW graduates still worked primarily in the home as wives and mothers, a handful were finding work as teachers, editors, and writers. This new era of women’s education coincided with new service-oriented pursuits throughout the city: social services were becoming public and non-denominational . Women from PCW began volunteering with local service organizations and seeking careers in social work.
Shortly thereafter, PCW created a social work degree program: one of the first educational social work programs in the country and the first program in the history of the institution aimed at training students for a specific career . The program collaborated heavily with service-oriented organizations in Pittsburgh. This newfound career path for PCW’s graduates helped ignite their determination and sense of purpose as members of Pittsburgh’s society. The transition was notable for Chatham as well, as it took the first step towards developing more career-oriented curriculums.
In 1955, the decision was made to change the name from PCW to Chatham College, after William Pitt, First Earl of Chatham and the namesake of Pittsburgh . The name change was rooted in an effort to gain more national visibility and hearkened to deep-seated ties to Pittsburgh . The new and improved Chatham College began to foster more Pittsburgh partnerships. In 1966, the Pittsburgh Council on Higher Education (PCHE) was formed to allow collaboration, shared resources, and educational support between Pittsburgh’s accredited educational institutions. In the years to come, Chatham faced the increasing pressure felt by liberal arts colleges around the country, particularly women’s colleges. Students wanted the security of post-graduate work, and so rose an increasing need for professional skill-building within the classroom.
Over the next several decades, Chatham College set off to build on its traditional liberal arts curriculum. Undergraduate majors were added, including accounting, environmental studies, women’s studies, arts management, and media arts—all rapidly growing fields of the time . The school signed collaborative agreements with other universities, allowing students options beyond Chatham’s course catalog, and added co-educational graduate programs in the early ‘90s.
In this new phase of Chatham’s identity, a global perspective became an essential element of the curriculum. The global focus program was launched in 1995, in which the campus community devoted each academic year to the study and celebration of a new country’s culture and history . International travel became encouraged and promoted as a quintessential element of Chatham’s new and improved “world-ready woman,” a phrase coined in 1999 that resonated with students long after.
Once Chatham received university status and elected to go fully co-educational, the curriculum underwent a complete overhaul, honoring the traditional aspects of Chatham’s educational legacy while incorporating new and innovative approaches. Today’s curriculum fosters strong writing and technology skills. Students are encouraged to gain a broad understanding of sustainability, global perspectives, and civic engagement, while honing career-specific skills in the field of their choice.
Despite the vast changes a Chatham education has undergone over the past 150 years, one thing has remained consistent. Our faculty build unique relationships with our students through opportunities for collaboration and personalized attention. One shining example: Maggie McGovney’s bond with Assistant Professor of Biology, Pierette Appasamy, PhD which helped her stand out in a sea of competitive medical school applicants.
Chatham’s rapid late-20th-century evolution as a leader in health science education was contingent upon three important factors: first, a strong foundation as a college committed to scientific education; second, Pittsburgh’s pivot from steel titan to healthcare and technology hub; and, third, the addition of graduate programs in occupational therapy, physical therapy, and physician assistant studies.
Though science was always a mandated component of PCW’s curriculum, jobs in healthcare and scientific research began opening themselves to women as the world shifted. Rachel Carson graduated from PCW in 1929 and went on to become one of the most influential scientists of all time. In 1930, Chatham erected its first building fully devoted to the pursuit of science and research—the Louise C. Buhl Hall of Science .
As the Great Depression and World War II broke out, steel mills operated 24 hours a day  to support the war effort and the city became known as the “Arsenal of Democracy.”  Pittsburgh men and women took evening classes in PCW’s labs to learn about engineering, sciences, and war training programs . PCW added Bachelor of Science degrees in Chemistry and Biology, while ramping up classes in physics and meteorology .
In 1939, PCW formed a partnership with Allegheny General Hospital to create a five-year program in nursing education . By 1950, the senior tutorial was built into the curriculum—a new opportunity for students to carry out independent research with a professor . The advantage of research experience helped PCW’s women stand out amongst their peers. As PCW became Chatham College, graduates were frequently finding work in the medical field, as doctors, lab technicians, nurses, and medical technologists.
One early tutorial was Barbara Stephenson’s exploration of the use of radioactive gold in cancer treatment—she went on to be the only woman admitted to the first year class of Emory University’s School of Medicine. 
As the late ‘70s emerged, however, jobs were rapidly fleeing Pittsburgh as the steel industry collapsed . Chatham’s student population was declining along with the economy and there was anxiety in the air. But another period of renewal was imminent. Rather than allowing the steel city to fall victim to Rust Belt desolation, Pittsburgh began investing in the city’s other assets—healthcare, technology, energy, and more.
UPMC hired revolutionary organ-transplant surgeon Dr. Thomas Starzl in the early ‘80s, helping to catalyze a new route to economic stability . The city began rehabilitating: retraining steel workers, investing in innovation, and rebuilding failing infrastructure . The universities of the city served as hotbeds for new medical and biotech research.
Around the time Pittsburgh’s healthcare scene began its reign, Chatham’s curriculum became more structured and streamlined, aiming to accommodate the challenges of career-oriented students facing a smaller job market. In 1993, Chatham added several graduate programs in healthcare that would further increase the school’s reputation within the field .
What rose from this period of recalibration was a highly selective and nationally renowned School of Health Sciences (SHS) that uses problem-based learning and works to ensure students actively serve their communities. Integrated degree programs offer Chatham undergraduates the opportunity to gain guaranteed or preferred admission to our highly competitive health science graduate programs. Service work continues to play a vital role in a Chatham education; SHS students complete service-based fellowships, research projects, and learning trips. Pittsburgh’s wide range of notable healthcare institutions provide today’s students with ample clinical and research opportunities.
Recently, Chatham health science students have received recognition throughout Pittsburgh for their work on Go Baby Go!—a project conceived at the University of Delaware that modifies ride-on toy cars to accommodate children with mobility deficits. Additionally CBS Pittsburgh highlighted the aging simulation lab developed by the physical therapy program to help students empathize with the everyday difficulties of their elderly patients and fine-tune their observational skills.
As healthcare helped to stabilize the city’s economy, the question of the city’s health itself loomed. In 1962, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, and the modern environmental movement kicked off, marking the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the banning of DDT . If the city wanted to create a new, healthy identity, the pollution had to be addressed.
Green infrastructure was built into the city’s comeback initiative. Pittsburgh founded the Green Building Alliance in 1993, the first nonprofit organization in the country to focus solely on the green infrastructure of city buildings . The David L. Lawrence Convention Center was built soon after on formerly industrialized land and became the first Gold LEED-certified convention center in the world .
In 2006, Pittsburgh instituted a Green Government Task Force which focused on creating the city’s first sustainability and climate action-based agenda and was the birthplace of the Pittsburgh Sustainability Commission . By 2008, the city had 24 LEED-certified buildings .
In May of 2008, Chatham received the 388-acre plot of land that would become Eden Hall Campus from the Eden Hall Foundation. The gift marked a turning point for the college and an opportunity for exponential growth. Careful deliberation led to the consensus that Eden Hall Campus would be the ideal location for the committed and innovative study of sustainability .
Eden Hall Campus became the first of its kind—built from the ground up for sustainable living and research. It also became home to the Falk School of Sustainability & Environment, supported with a transformational grant from the Falk Foundation. Today, the campus generates enough solar energy to power fourteen homes for a year, feeding unused energy back into the public energy grid. It sources storm water through rain gardens, gravel walkways, and a harvesting system that retools it for crop irrigation.
The campus also serves as an agricultural classroom for both students and the community, housing a certified organic farm and greenhouses, and hosting food workshops. Eden Hall students lead sustainable education videos on how to extract honey, make maple syrup, grow shiitake mushrooms, and more. Plus, recent alumni like Scott Marshall, Megan Gallagher, Hal B. Klein, and Shauna Kearns serve as active models of sustainable and food-centric living within their communities.
Much as Chatham & Pittsburgh had been on the forefront of women’s education in the late nineteenth century, they now moved to the forefront of sustainability in the early 2000s.
And Pittsburgh is an integral component of sustainability education at Chatham. Students in our Food Studies program learn hands-on entrepreneurial skills at La Prima Coffee in the Strip District while students in our Sustainability program use historic coal mines and steel mills as opportunities to explore the city’s sustainable renaissance.
The idea of sustainability grows more profound when you consider it in relation to Chatham & Pittsburgh. Both historic powerhouses nearly fell victim to the challenges of evolving social needs and economic strains. Both relied heavily on and sought to inform the work of the other by work done individually. Both devoted themselves fully to the idea of a small community capable of unimaginable feats. The result is a 150-year-old institution inseparable from its origin city.
Special thanks to Mary Brignano for her work on the Chatham history book, Chatham: A Transformational University, which informed this essay immensely. Purchase the history book at chatham.edu/history-book.
Archival images from the collections of the Chatham University Archives & Special Collections.
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- Brignano, M. (2017). Chatham: A Transformational University. Pittsburgh, PA: Chatham University.
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