American Univesity of Beirut

1920 – A year like no other

​​​​After a daunting 12 months for AUB and Lebanon, we delve into the university archives to remember another challenge-filled year exactly a century ago​.​

​​​​​​December 6, 2020

Looking back at 2020, many of us are left thinking, how long is it since we have been through a more challenging year? As it happens, exactly 100 years ago our predecessors were just emerging from a succession of difficult years, with drought, famine, the First World War, and the fall of the Ottoman Empire all heavily impacting the community of the Syrian Protestant College (SPC), as it then was.  

In retrospect, 1920 turned out to be a significant inflection point. It was the year that SPC transitioned from a college to a university, the American University of Beirut, with talk of expanding the campus to include the “plain below the chapel, to the sea.” President Howard Bliss, exhausted from steering SPC through the war years and determined to protect the rights of self-determination for Arab people at the Paris Peace Conference, died halfway through the year, aged 59. A month later, the 1,001st student registered at the newly named AUB, setting an enrollment record. More change was coming as the university began accepting women into professional programs. But for many, a highlight may have been more mundane—the February snowstorm that blanketed the Mediterranean coast, including our campus, and encouraged among other things, the throwing of snowballs. 


From SPC to AUB

A few months after the historic name change, Professor Nickoley wrote about the event, which was formalized by the New York Board of Regents on November 18, 1920.  

“The new name was not consciously chosen by any person or by any authoritative group of individuals. For years the College had been popularly known as the ‘American University’ even officially among the local administrators it was thus designated. Since the name should be changed it seemed wisest to the Faculty, when they were consulted, that the name should be officially what it had for years been popularly, namely the American University of Beirut. It is not the Faculty or the Trustees who have chosen the name but the people of Beirut, of Syria, and of the Near East whom the institution has served during the past half century and whom it hopes to continue to serve in the future.” 

The new name implied universality, and scholarly research and investigation. The change was authorized on June 29, 1920 by the trustees, in addition to a decision to remove distinctions in the status of Anglo-Saxon and non-Anglo-Saxon teachers and administrators. AUB would henceforward grant professors institutional equality and award voting rights within the general faculty regardless of national origin, thus ending one previous facet of discrimination against Syrian professors. 

Nickoley said he hoped that by expanding the institution’s scope from college to university, “the American University of Beirut may become a university in fact and in deed as well as in name.”

The First Women

Since 1905, the only female students admitted to the university were at the nursing school. Starting in 1920, the trustees approved allowing the professional schools of pharmacy, medicine, and dentistry to open their doors to women “as long as there were at least three applicants” per program.  In 1925, Sara Levy of Palestine, admitted in 1921, became the first woman to graduate from AUB with a regular degree, in pharmaceutical chemistry. By 1924, women were also allowed to enter the sophomore class of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. 

- Sara Levy PhC (1925) Pharmacy
- Edma Abu Chedid, Munira Saffuri, and Gladis Shanklin, BA (1926) A&S
- Fortunée Azriel DDS (1926) Dentistry

Along with women from Beirut, several educational migrants enrolled at AUB, traveling ​from places like Egypt, Damascus, Palestine, and Russia. Several women attended with their brothers, while Ihsan Shakir, the first Muslim woman to graduate (BA, 1929), came to AUB with her husband from Cairo. After completing her BA degree, Edma Abu Chedid became the first woman to graduate with an MD in 1933.1

President Howard Bliss: inaugurated May 1903, died May 1920 

The record shows Howard Bliss, son of founder Daniel Bliss, as a man of high principles, greatly respected by the Ottoman rulers in the region. During WWI, even though Turkey and the US were in opposite camps, the SPC managed to stay open. Many of the college's international students were stranded in Beirut, unable to return to their homes. Howard Bliss made sure that neither these students nor the rest of the college were wanting. 

In Paris, Bliss cautioned world leaders that “Unless the Mandatory Power working under the League of Nations approaches its great task in the spirt of lofty service, her splendid opportunity to lead an aspiring people to independence will be forever lost.”  Tragically, it was the impact of his words that were lost. Bliss himself was never able to return to his home in Beirut. He went to America to convalesce from tuberculosis and passed away in Saranac, New York.


The 1920 “freeze” that covered the campus in snow, became part of family folklore for many. The disarray left by the Ottoman loss of Palestine meant many births were not recorded in official documents. One AUBite’s husband was born in a small village in Palestine during the storm, but this happy event was superseded by another more memorable one in this rural community, the birth of a bull. Years later, when trying to establish his unregistered birth date, his mother told him, “You were born during the great snow, at the same time as the bull.” He worked out it must have been mid-February, 1920, and so he picked St. Valentine’s Day, the 14th, as his “official” birthday. 

Do you have any family stories to share from 1920, whether AUB-related or not? We’d love to hear from you. Please write to us at

1 Aleksandra Kobiljski. Women Students at the American University of Beirut from the 1920s to the 1940s. Gender, Religion and Change in the Middle East Two Hundred Years of History, Berg, pp.67-84, 2005, 1068-8536. ffhalshs-01078996f

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