William H. Danforth was born in St. Louis in 1926, the son of a business executive and the grandson of the founder of the world-famous Ralston Purina Company who was himself a graduate of the university’s Manual Training School and mechanical engineering program in the 19th century.
When Chancellor Danforth was 12 his grandfather instructed him to literally cut the word “impossible” out of his dictionary. The lesson stuck. He graduated from St. Louis Country Day School and spent a brief time at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, before transferring to Princeton and graduating in 1947. He graduated from Harvard Medical School and, following an internship at Barnes Hospital and two years as a Navy doctor during the Korean War, he returned to Washington University and never left. A cardiologist, Danforth rose through the professorial ranks at the School of Medicine before taking on administrative duties as vice chancellor for medical affairs. Along the way he did basic research in the laboratory of Nobel laureates Carl and Gerty Cori.
“I believe that Washington University is one of this community’s contributions to mankind. A successful university is a noble institution. It is a statement of faith; faith that human beings can be educated and that human thought is worthwhile, that the thinking, analyzing animal called man can use his unique talents for the benefit of himself and his fellows; that we can learn from our past; that we can change; that by intelligence we can improve our lot and the lot of our children and their children.”
William H. Danforth, Founders Day address, 1972
As vice chancellor, Danforth stood beside and gave counsel to Chancellor Thomas Eliot during the student unrest of the 1960s and was the universal choice in 1971 for 13th chancellor when Eliot retired. He led the university through a time of social and financial crisis, strengthening community relationships and securing important financial support through the $630.5 million Alliance for Washington University campaign.
By the time he retired in 1995 and took over the reins as chairman of the board, his accomplishments were legion and lauded nationally. He had set the course for the future of the university and completed its transition from a local college to a national research university, recruiting talented students from around the world. He had established 70 new faculty chairs, built a $1.72 billion endowment, oversaw the funding and construction of dozens of new buildings, and tripled the number of scholarships for students.
Nearly 60,000 students graduated during his chancellorship, retention of undergraduate students and the recruitment of minority students increased significantly, and he had become one of the longest-serving university chancellors or presidents in the country. Known as “Uncle Bill” and “Chan Dan” by students, he and his wife Elizabeth “Ibby” knew many students by name because of the countless campus events they attended and supported. The Danforth years had reinvigorated student life on campus.
Among his many awards, he was named “Man of the Year” in 1977 by the St. Louis Globe-Democrat and, like his predecessor Ethan Shepley, was given the Alexander Meiklejohn Award by the American Association of University Professors for his unflinching support of academic freedom. He had a great devotion to the university and its founders, especially William Greenleaf Eliot and Robert S. Brookings. In a 1977 letter to alumni he wrote: “From time to time, I try to figure out how our predecessors did it….They shared a grand dream that knowledge was better than ignorance, that humankind could be bettered by education. They did not feel that they were building for themselves but for their fellow humans and those who would come after. They believed that they could influence the future. And they did.”
In 1999, the Trustees named him chancellor emeritus.