Hangovers all round – first day at university, 1855

160 years ago, on 16 October 1855, 68 students embarked on their degrees at the newly found Federal Polytechnical School (now ETH Zurich). Naturally, the Swiss School Board decided to announce this in the newspapers all over Switzerland and even as far as Augsburg:

“An excerpt from the upcoming lecture lists should be inserted once in the N.Z.  Zeitung, Bund, Basler Zeitung, Revue de Genève, Journal de Genève, Nouvelliste Vaudois, Républicain de Neuchâtel, Confédéré de Fribourg, Democrazia in Tessin and Allg. Augsburger Zeitung in the following form:

Federal Polytechnic School:

the classes for the 1855/56 academic year will begin at the Federal Polytechnic School on 16 Oct. 1855 and conclude on 16 August 1856.”

This was followed by a one-page description of the subjects and courses offered.


Minutes of the Swiss School Board Meeting on 29.08.1855 (ETH Library, University Archives, SR2:1855, p. 142.)

The students of the first hour hailed from all the language regions of Switzerland, as well as Germany (2) and England (1). Unfortunately, very little has survived regarding the university’s first day. The Swiss School Board minutes and the diary of the first director of the school, Joseph Wolfgang von Deschwanden, report very little on it. However, von Deschwanden’s diary entry from the previous day casts major doubts as to whether the students were all present at the first lecture:

 “15 Oct. Inauguration of the Fed. Polytechn. at midday and in the evening the majority of the students inebriated. A truly depressing, irksome start!”


Joseph Wolfgang von Deschwanden’s diary, 16 April 1855 to 13 March 1856 (ETH Library, University Archives, Hs 142: 17)

Incidentally, the courses were not yet taught in today’s main ETH Zurich Building, which was not completed until 1864. The university was spread across four and later five buildings in Zurich’s old town and suffered from highly cramped conditions.


Peter Gyr. Josef Wolfgang von Deschwanden(1819-1866) : erster Direktor des Eidgenössischen Polytechnikums in Zürich. Zürich 1981.

Wilhelm Oechsli. Geschichte der Gründung des eidgenössischen Polytechnikums mit einer Übersicht seiner Entwicklung 1855-1905: Zur Feier des fünfzigjährigen Bestehens der Anstalt verfasst im Auftrage des Schweizerischen Schulrates. Frauenfeld 1905.


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