Why is UB blue? The answer might be as much about lapel pins as diploma ribbons

Aerial view of UB South Campus colorized in blue.

A foggy view of the UB South Campus. Photo: Douglas Levere


Published March 13, 2024

“The timing of that discovery [of synthetic blue] might align nicely with the [ribbon color] decision. There are many other natural sources for all these other colors, and blue was underused, appealing for UB to snag. ”
Tim Cook, professor
Department of Chemistry

The School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, originally known as the Department of Pharmacy, and the Medical Department, today’s Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, often receive credit for helping to establish UB’s blue-and-white color scheme.

But there is a third, more influential contributor.

University Archives holds the foundational evidence of the blue-and-white origin story. The information is catalogued under “Colors, Songs and Mottos.” 

William Offhaus, reference archivist, wheels a cart from the stacks, and pulls out a slim folder from the cart. The folder is filled with concentrated historical details, some of which invite creative speculation.

Among the pages in that folder is the story of the Pharmacy Department preparing in 1888 to graduate its first class. Pharmacy was the second school to emerge under the University of Buffalo umbrella following the Medical Department, founded in 1846.

“Whether by intent or accident is not known to me and whether from ’46 or not is not known, but so far as the memory of this man runneth, medical diplomas have been tied with white ribbon,” Willis G. Gregory wrote in 1906 for the “Iris,” the university’s first general student yearbook.

Willis G. Gregory.

Willis G. Gregory

Gregory was both a physician and pharmacist. An 1882 graduate of the Medical Department, he owned a drug store in Buffalo and was among the Pharmacy Department’s first faculty members. He became dean in 1890, serving in that capacity for 46 years, the longest leadership tenure in the school’s history.

“How shall we tie our diplomas?” Gregory asked rhetorically in that same Iris piece, remembering pharmacy’s quandary of 1888.

That year marked the first time the university would grant a diploma other than that of medical doctor. To avoid any potential commencement confusion, pharmacy tied its diplomas with a blue ribbon to distinguish its diplomas from those in medicine.

“And so the White and Blue (sic) came to be the colors of the University of Buffalo,” concluded Gregory.

But there’s more.

Pharmacy obviously had other ribbon color options, and though Gregory never explained why blue became the distinctive choice, one of the 19th century’s scientific breakthroughs might be partly responsible.

That discovery wasn’t on the order of Charles Darwin’s publication of “The Origin of Species,” but there was a British scientist in the mid-1800s who learned how to artificially create a deep shade of blue that previously required valuable natural components. The accidental discovery altered the economics of the color wheel, and made a pigment once rare, more common.

“Lapis lazuli, the original source of ultramarine blue, was once considered more precious than gold,” says Elizabeth Otto, UB professor of modern and contemporary art history. “Because of its preciousness and purity, starting in the Renaissance, it was deemed a suitable color for the clothes of the Virgin Mary.”

Blue’s one-time, sticker-shock pricing meant that artists used the color sparingly.

“To this day, one can pick her out of a crowed of female figures in Christina iconography because she will, almost without fail, be wearing blue,” says Otto.

Then came synthetic blue, which made the color more affordable.

“The timing of that discovery [of synthetic blue] might align nicely with the [ribbon color] decision,” says Tim Cook, UB professor of chemistry. “There are many other natural sources for all these other colors, and blue was underused, appealing for UB to snag.”

Blue would, by the early 20th century, become even more accessible.

“Cu phthalocyanine is important because it’s relatively easy to make,” says Cook. “It uses earth abundant materials, and its chemical properties are amazing for its widespread application as a pigment.”

“And so,” returning to Gregory’s quote, “the White and Blue (sic) came to be the colors of the University of Buffalo.”

Gregory however apparently never met Harrison Williams, who in 1892 had just finished his first year at the university’s new law school, which opened two years earlier.

In a story he wrote for the 1934 Alumni Council Bulletin, Williams mentioned the “fashion among college students of wearing small metal buttons on their coat lapel with the colours (sic) of the college enameled thereon.”

At the time, UB had no such button, but when Williams looked into creating one, he also discovered “that the university had no colours,” despite Gregory’s historical claim to the contrary.

In his letter for the Bulletin, Harrison cites a conversation on Sept. 2, 1892, with a fellow student where he suggested “the blue and white” colors for the button, stressing the importance of a shade different from that adopted by Columbia University.

The shade of UB, incidentally, has changed through the years, with the historical blue darker than the current color that fuels the university’s True Blue pride.

Using his UB student diary as a reference, Williams wrote that later in the day he met with E. Carlton Sprague, chancellor of the university, who received his plan with “very cordial approval.”

Within two weeks of that meeting, Sprague appointed the industrious Williams and Charles P. Norton, then registrar of the law school, as a committee of two to choose the button for the university.

“[Norton] apparently approved of the colours suggested,” wrote Williams.

Sprague was one of the first to get a new button, which were partially distributed on Oct. 3, 1892.

He “at once wore it jauntily,” wrote Williams.

Two months later, at a student committee meeting, “the first piece of work we undertook was to get the university button generally distributed in the different schools.”

Producing the buttons was ultimately a step as significant as pharmacy’s decision to distinguish itself from medicine. From the start, the law school’s goal was to unify the university’s three schools with an identifying feature — in this case a color scheme.

His otherwise meticulous diary doesn’t mention why he suggested “blue and white,” but the underlying assumption is that he used the diploma ribbon colors as his inspiration, colors which at the time were significant, but not officially identified with the university.

Williams also hoped to “get all the schools to unite on one general commencement day.”

And he came close.

Pharmacy and medicine were both on board, but law had a longer school year, and blocked the proposal, Williams claimed.

But the blue and white, endured. Actually, it’s the white and blue, “in accordance with their chronology,” according to a March 1913 entry in the University Bison, a defunct UB student publication.