The origins of Wits lie in the South African School of Mines, which was established in Kimberley in 1896 and transferred to Johannesburg as the Transvaal Technical Institute in 1904, becoming the Transvaal University College in 1906 and renamed the South African School of Mines and Technology four years later.
Full university status was granted in 1922, incorporating the College as the University of the Witwatersrand, with effect from 1st March. Seven months later the inauguration of the University was duly celebrated. Prof. Jan Hofmeyr became its first principal. Construction began at Milner Park on a site donated to the University by the Johannesburg Municipality. The University had, at that stage, six faculties (Arts, Science, Medicine, Engineering, Law and Commerce), 37 departments, 73 members of academic staff and little more than 1 000 students. The period between 1947 and the 1980s was marked by considerable growth of student numbers increased rapidly to 6275 in 1963, 10600 in 1975 and 16400 by 1985.
The acquisition of additional property in adjacent areas became imperative. The medical library and the administrative offices of the Faculty of Medicine moved to a new building in Esselen Street, Hillbrow during 1964. The Graduate School of Business was established in Parktown in 1968. In 1969 the Ernest Oppenheimer Residence was formally opened in Parktown. Also in 1969 the clinical departments in the new Medical School were opened. The Medical School moved premises once again and is now situated in York Street, Parktown. Expansion into Br mfontein also took place when, in 1976 Lawson's Corner, renamed University Corner, was acquired. Senate House, the University's main administrative building, was occupied in 1977.
In the 1960s, the University acquired the Sterkfontein site, which has world-famous limestone caves, rich in archaeological material, and has subsequently been declared a World Heritage Site.
In 1968 the neighbouring farm, Swartkrans, also a source of archaeological material, was purchased. In the same year, the University acquired excavation rights in caves of archaeological and palaeontological importance at Makapansgat in the area now known as the Limpopo province. The Wedge, a building formerly owned by the National Institute of Metallurgy, was taken over by the University in 1979.
The Milner Park showgrounds were acquired in 1984 from the Witwatersrand Agricultural Society and renamed West Campus. In 1989, the Chamber of Mines Building for the Faculty of Engineering on the West Campus was inaugurated, and the brick-paved AMIC deck was built across the M1 motorway to link the East and West Campuses.
Since 2000, Wits has been implementing expansion and modernisation plans across different areas of the campus. Many of these address the physical, academic and technological infrastructure and processes necessary to implement the new streamlined faculties and schools, while others cater for the large growth in student numbers since the start of the decade. The delivery of excellent customer service and the provision of more leisure and convenience facilities to students and staff have also been an important part of these plans.
The main library, the Wartenweiler, underwent a major revamp. This modernisation exercise resulted in the traditional model of a library being dramatically altered by the installation of ICT connectivity and knowledge commons (group learning areas) throughout the entire building.
During 2002 the School of Oral Health moved into a new state-of-the-art facility within the Johannesburg General Hospital. The space they vacated was revamped to accommodate the Wits School of Arts. This beautiful space now accommodates the disciplines of Fine Arts, Dramatic Arts, History of Arts and Music. International House, a residence catering mainly for the burgeoning international student population, was opened in 2003. Yale Road has been upgraded from an erstwhile municipal road to become a softer and greener university space. A student mall, the Matrix, houses 26 leisure and convenience outlets. The Student Enrolment Centre, based in Senate House, welcomed the 2003 registration cohorts. All education entities are based at the new Education Campus (formerly the Johannesburg College of Education). The Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre (formerly the Kenridge Hospital) has been extensively upgraded to serve as an academic teaching hospital. It officially opened during 2004.