11 Things You Might Not Know About Drexel University

Art, home ec, astronauts, computers — and one magnificent dragon.

Drexel's Bossone Research Enterprise Center. Photo | Courtesy Drexel University

Photo | Courtesy Drexel University

In case you somehow missed the cake and balloons, Drexel University turned 125 this year. To celebrate, two Drexel profs, Richardson Dilworth (grandson of the two-time Philly mayor) and Scott Gabriel Knowles, have put together a comprehensive history of the school, with chapters on everything from its architecture to its sports teams, its Greek life to its role in the civil rights movement and relations with adjacent neighborhoods. Building Drexel: The University and Its City, 1891-2016 is published by Temple University Press. Here are 11 things you might not know about Drexel, recently named by U.S. News & World Report one of the top 500 universities in the world.

1. The first member of the Drexel family in the U.S., Francis Drexel, was an itinerant Austrian artist who left his hometown to avoid conscription into Napoleon’s army. Landing in Philly in 1817, he swiftly became a well-known portrait painter. A decade after his arrival here, he debarked for South America, intending to paint Simón Bolívar. The trip was a disaster, but it did inspire a new career: When he came home, Drexel gave up art and opened a currency exchange business in Philly’s financial district.

2. It was Francis’s son, Anthony J. Drexel, who partnered with New York City bankers, including Pierpont Morgan, to found Drexel, Morgan and Company in 1871, with headquarters in the biggest building on Wall Street. Anthony continued living here, though, commuting from his villa in West Philly as he built an international financial juggernaut.

3. Anthony founded the Drexel Institute of Art, Science, and Industry in 1891, basing it on New York’s Cooper Union and Pratt Institute and the local school that eventually became the University of the Arts. All these schools were low-cost; open to all genders, races and creeds; and focused on practical learning rather than elite status. In its initial incarnation, Drexel offered courses in business, chemistry, cooking, dressmaking, art and library science — only the third library sciences program in the country. The school added its renowned cooperative education program just 30 years after its founding.

4. Construction of the University City Science Center, which began in 1964, displaced a thousand mostly black city residents. The only dormitory at the school at the time, one for women, had opened in the 1930s; a second was built in 1967. The majority of students were commuters, though frats and sororities established houses in Powelton Village from the late 1930s on.

5. In the late 1980s and 1990s, unrest between the school’s presidents and the faculty and deans, increased competition from Temple and Penn State, and financial pressures led to declining enrollments and tuition increases. But new president Constantine Papadakis, appointed in 1995, turned the school’s fortunes around, with help from the burgeoning demographic of baby boomers’ kids. Drexel soon added a medical school, in 2002, and a law school, in 2006. As whimsical as this may sound, students at the law school are divided into four “learning societies” named for local landmarks: the Rocky Statue, the Atheneum, the Hill-Physick House, and the Liberty Bell. No, students are not assigned by a talking hat.

Photo | Courtesy Drexel University

Photo | Courtesy Drexel University

6. Early in Drexel’s history, its sports teams were variously known as the Blue and Gold, the Engineers and the Drexelites. In 1928, though, the football team was described in the Triangle — the student newspaper — as “fighting like Dragons.” The name has stuck, though the school dropped football as a sport in 1974. The Dragon mascot is known as “Mario the Magnificent” in honor of Mario Mascioli of the Class of 1945, who never missed a Drexel basketball game and said shortly before he died that what he would miss most in life was cheering for the Dragons. Interesting fact: Of the 350-plus NCAA Division I teams, Drexel is the only school with a dragon as its teams’ name.

7. Drexel was the first university in the world to require its students to use microcomputers, rolling out a partnership program with Apple in 1984. The school’s then-president, William Hagerty, thought computers would be a passing fad, but he did think the move would make for great publicity. Sure enough, enrollment spiked. The basic Macintoshes cost students $1,000, discounted from Apple’s list price of $2,495.

8. Three Drexel engineering alums have been to space with NASA. James P. Bagian, Class of 1973, flew on two shuttle missions, in 1989 and 1991, and developed what are now the standard treatments for space motion sickness. Paul Richards, Class of 1987, flew on the eighth shuttle mission to the International Space Station, in 2001. And Chris Ferguson, Class of 84, was captain on the final space shuttle flight, in 2011.

9. Drexel’s Westphal College of Media Arts and Design is home to an award-winning independent record label, Mad Dragon Records, and Westphal’s Audio Archives are home to 6,200 master tapes from Sigma Sound Studios, which recorded local bands in the 1960s through the 1980s. David Bowie recorded much of his Young Americans album at Sigma.

10. In 1951, Drexel’s College of Home Economics had the largest enrollment of any private college in America. It offered degrees in costume design, dietetics, general home economics, and home-ec education. The student body was 100 percent female; classrooms included food-prep laboratories and an early childhood center next to the women’s dormitory.

11. Drexel’s Papadakis Integrated Sciences Building, opened in 2011, contains a five-story biowall that serves as a living air filter. Contaminated air is drawn into water that trickles behind the wall; microbes in the roots of the plants on the wall remove particulates and volatile compounds from the water. Drexel was the first university in the United States to contain such a feature.

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This post has been edited to correct the error noted by the commenter below.