The foundation of the university was the cathedral school at Münster, which dated from the Middle Ages. This school, about the end of the fifteenth century, had reached a flourishing condition through the efforts of the famous humanist Rudolph von Langen (1438-1519). The disturbances caused by the Anabaptists (1533-35) had a depressing influence, but Dean Gottfried von Raesfeld succeeded in restoring it to its former position by turning its supervision over to the Jesuits in 1588. The school, now called Gymnasium Paulinum, was enlarged by the addition of courses in philosophy and theology for the scientific education of priests, and was raised by Pope Urban VIII to the rank of an academy, 9 Sept., 1629. The latter action was taken at the urgent request of Prince-Bishop Ferdinand I (1612-31), who also obtained from the Emperor Ferdinand II the document of 21 May, 1631, in which the latter granted permission to found a complete university with four faculties. The death of the bishop, the disturbances of the Thirty Years' War and the want of funds prevented the execution of this plan during the next century and a half. The clever work of Vicar-General Franz Friedrich von Fürstenberg finally accomplished the desired end: on 4 August, 1771, Prince-Bishop Maximilian Friedrich von Königseck-Rotenfels signed the document making Münster a university. Pope Clement XIV granted to the university, in a bull dated 28 May, 1773, all the privileges, indults and liberties which other universities enjoyed. The charter, signed by Emperor Joseph II in Vienna, is dated 8 Oct. of the same year. For more than thirty years Fürstenberg, as curator, laboured earnestly for the development of the university. He filled it with the spirit of positive Christianity, so that it had a beneficent influence at a time when rationalistic philosophy and false enlightenment appeared everywhere. In 1803 Münster was ceded to Prussia by the imperial deputation assembled at Ratisbon. The Prussian administrator of Münster, Baron von Stein, showed great interest in the university, but endeavoured to do away with its Catholic character. His successor, President von Vincke, accomplished this purpose and dismissed Fürstenberg, the founder of the university, in 1805. In the autumn of 1806 the French took possession of the town. During the seven years' sway of the foreigners no remarkable progress was made in the university. After Münster had again become Prussian in 1813, the Protestant government raised the question whether the university should be reorganized or removed to another town. No decision was reached until King Frederick William III in 1815 promised his new subjects on the left bank of the Rhine that a university would be established on the Rhine. The founding of the university at Bonn carried with it the abolition of that of Münster, which took place in the summer of 1818. Only one theological course, and, by way of preparation for the same, a philological and scientific course, remained, under the name of an academy. While this academy possessed the character of a university and the right of conferring degrees, it was conducted on a rather modest scale. A department of medicine, which had been started in 1821, was discontinued in 1848. It was not until 1870 that the increasing importance of Germany as a nation infused new life into the endeavour to uplift the academy. In 1880 the modeling of the present magnificent main edifice of the university was completed, and in 1886 there was added to the academy a pharmaceutical institute. The continued efforts of the town and of the province of Westphalia finally led to the issue of a royal decree, dated 1 July, 1902, restoring to the academy a faculty of law and the title "University" (since 1907 "Westphälische Wilhelms-Universität", in honour of the Emperor William II). In 1906 there followed the establishment of the chairs and institutions required for the first half of the course in medicine, the further extension of which may be expected in the next few years.
Noteworthy among the teachers of the old episcopal university were: Clemens Becker, S.J., professor of canon law and moral theology (d. 1790); Joh. Hyac. Kistemaker, philologist and theologian, who taught the classical languages from 1786 to 1834, and, later on, exegesis. A. M. Sprickmann laboured as a jurist in Münster from 1778 to 1814, when he was called to the University of Breslau and later, in 1817, to Berlin. Anton Bruchhausen, S.J., professor of physics (1773-82), gained a great reputation among German scientists through his "Institutiones physicæ" (1775); and the philosopher Havichhorst (1773-83) through his "Institutiones logic æ". George Hermes was professor of dogmatic theology in Münster from 1807-20; he founded the so-called Hermesianism, a rationalistic tendency in theology, and d. in 1831 at Bonn, where he taught from 1820; his teachings were condemned at Rome in 1836. J. Th. H. Katerkamp, who was counted among the friends of Princess Galitzin , was professor of theology. Of the teachers in the academy there deserve to be mentioned the neo-scholastic Stöckl, professor of philosophy (1862-71); furthermore, Wilhelm Storck, interpreter of Portuguese poems (Camoens) and professor of German literature (1859-1905); and especially Johann Wilhelm Hittorf, since 1852 professor of physics and chemistry, who discovered the cathode rays, and made valuable investigations concerning electric phenomena in vacuum tubes and contributions to the theory of ions. Mention should also be made of Professors Berlage (dogmatics), Reinke ( Old Testament exegetics ), and Bisping ( New Testament exegetus), Schwane (dogmatics).
The number of matriculated students is at present: summer of 1910, 2008 (including 68 women ); there are besides 115 auditors. Teachers: in the theological faculty, 9 ordinary and 2 extraordinary professors, 2 dozents and 1 lecturer; in the law faculty, 7 ordinary and 3 extraordinary professors, 4 dozents; in the philosophical faculty, 28 ordinary and 6 extraordinary professors, 14 dozents, and 4 lecturers; in the medical faculty, 1 extraordinary and 2 ordinary professors, 2 lecturers, 1 dozent.
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