In 1848 a small group of mainly Scottish emigrants founded the colonial settlement of Otago and began to build the city of Dunedin. Within 21 years the University of Otago had been created by ordinance of the Provincial Council, and opened amid much celebration on 5 July 1871. The vision that built a university in such a young settlement reflected a deep-seated respect for education and the emerging status of Dunedin as the wealthiest city in New Zealand, its prosperity founded on the discovery of gold in the 1860s.
There were originally three professors: one to teach Classics and English Language and Literature, one with responsibility for Mathematics and Natural Philosophy, and the third to instruct in Mental and Moral Philosophy. The following year a professor in Natural Science joined the staff and the syllabus was gradually widened to include classes in Mining (1872), Law (1873), and Medicine (1875).
Further growth was seen with the opening of the School of Dentistry in 1907 and the School of Home Science in 1911. Teaching in Accountancy and Commerce subjects began in 1912. A Faculty of Theology was created in 1946, followed a year later by the founding of the School of Physical Education.
By 1960 the roll stood at nearly 3,000 and at around 6,500 by 1980; however, the last 35 years have been marked by spectacular growth and expansion. There are now around 20,000 students and the range of qualifications has been expanded by the addition of Surveying, Pharmacy, Medical Laboratory Science, Teaching, Physiotherapy, Applied Science, Dental Technology, Medical Radiation Therapy, Biomedical Sciences and many specialised postgraduate programmes. In 2007 the Dunedin College of Education merged with the University to form the University of Otago College of Education.