article Spring 2023

What’s in a Name?

UW-Madison holds a rich history and has been home to many influential figures since its founding. Many of these figures have been memorialized on campus, allowing their legacies to still be appreciated today. 

In the May 1974 issue of Wisconsin Engineer, then student Judy Endejan writes of an important new fixture soon to be built on the engineering campus: Wendt Commons. Formerly known as the Kurt F. Wendt Library, this four-story building was built in 1976 to honor the influential former dean of the UW-Madison College of Engineering, Professor Kurt F. Wendt. 

During Wendt’s time as dean of the College of Engineering, he assisted in the funding and development of 100 new buildings on campus. He oversaw the expansion of Engineering Hall, as well as the inception of the Engineering Research Building. During his time as dean, he introduced new majors for students in the College of Engineering. Wendt also initiated several collaborative research projects with universities in foreign countries.

Many students today will frequent or pass Wendt Commons without a thought, yet few will know the story behind its namesake. There are dozens of academic buildings, lecture halls, theatres, and dormitories like it on campus, begging the same question. Where exactly did those names come from? 

George L. Mosse, namesake of UW-Madison’s humanities center, was born in Nazi Germany before emigrating to the United States. He was a historian, best known for his studies of Nazism. He was also well-versed in theology and gender studies. Mosse published The Image of Man in 1996, which examines the history of masculinity. Later, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum named Mosse their first research historian in residence, before his death in 1999.

Photo by: Hridyesh Tewani

Helen C. White began her journey at UW-Madison as a freshman studying English in the fall of 1919. Her name now adorns the building housing College Library, a popular study spot on campus. As a young woman, she showed her dedication to the arts and women’s rights, as a high achiever in many organizations in her high school. She was also an active participant in the Massachusetts women’s suffrage movement. In 1936, White became the first female professor in the College of Letters and Science. Later, she also went on to become the first female president of the American Association of University Professors. She was recognized for her scholarship and received many awards and accolades throughout her life for her work in literature and academia, including 23 honorary degrees from universities across the country. 

Photo by: Hridyesh Tewani

Sterling Hall, located on N. Charter Street, was named after John Whelan Sterling, a pioneering faculty member who joined UW-Madison from the start. He taught the very first lecture ever held at UW-Madison on February 9, 1849. For his first years as a mathematics professor, his only fellow professor was founding chancellor John Hiram Lathrop. Sterling was a major supporter of women’s rights to equal education. He went on to serve as chief administrator in 1863, when women were first welcomed to study at UW-Madison. 

Barnard Residence Hall is the oldest dormitory still standing on campus. Built in 1913, the dorm was named after Henry Barnard, who served as chancellor from 1859-1860. Despite his short stay here at UW-Madison, Barnard was regarded for his work in educational reform. He even served as the first United States Commissioner of Education, which would later become known as the Bureau of Education. 

Walking along Lake Mendota on a nice summer’s day, you’ve likely passed the Hasler Laboratory for Limnology. Under the leadership of its namesake Arthur Davis Hasler, this building was erected back 1982. Hasler is an internationally renowned ecologist with many noteworthy contributions to the field of limnology. One such contribution was the explanation of the salmon’s homing instinct. This phenomenon was not understood until Hasler’s publications. Over his career, Hasler published over 200 scientific papers, oversaw the completion of 52 doctoral degrees, and held leadership positions in both the Ecological Society of America, and the National Academy of Sciences. 

Photo by: Hridyesh Tewani

Past the Hasler Laboratory is the start of the Howard Temin Path (also known as the lakeshore path), named for Howard Temin. A professor of oncology and virology at UW-Madison, Temin was often known to walk and bike the path. In the 1970s, Temin discovered reverse transcriptase, a DNA polymerase enzyme responsible for transcribing single-stranded RNA into double-stranded DNA. He would then go on to receive the Nobel Prize for his work alongside David Baltimore, an academic at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After winning the Nobel Prize, Temin continued his research, focusing on possible vaccines for HIV. He also studied genomics, particularly concerning virus genetic variation. 

Of course, this is not an exhaustive list. UW-Madison’s finest are embedded in the school’s memory across the expansive campus. 

Nevertheless, names have power. Many people have walked these campus grounds before today, and still many, many more will follow. Yet these historic buildings remain time capsules of those who came before. They remind us of those who built UW-Madison from the ground up and shaped it into the world-renowned research university we can call home. The names of these buildings stand for today and for many years to come.

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