John Sterling’s Golden Bequest to Yale

  • Education
  • 1918

By the time John Sterling graduated from Yale in 1864, the university had left an indelible mark on him. Upon his death in 1918, three quarters of the corporate lawyer’s fortune—accruing to $29 million by 1931—was donated to Yale to establish “at least one enduring, useful and architecturally beautiful building.” The gift came as a surprise to the university, which years earlier had tried to solicit a donation from Sterling and failed.

Arriving as it did in the teeth of the Great Depression, Sterling’s bequest went a long way, ultimately producing not one but a whole set of cornerstone buildings on the Connecticut campus—including Sterling Memorial Library, Sterling Law Building, Sterling Hall of Medicine, Sterling Chemistry Laboratory, the Hall of Graduate Studies, and other dorms and classrooms. Sterling’s donation also provided for “scholarships, fellowships, or lectureships; the endowment of new professorships, and the establishment of special funds for prizes.” There are now more than two dozen Sterling Professors at Yale, including some of the world’s leading authorities in the fields of law, political science, and literature. Today Yale honors its large donors with the title Sterling Fellow, thus reproducing the namesake’s practice of formative private giving.

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