The college was a founding member of its athletic conference, the New England Small College Athletic Conference, and the Colby-Bates-Bowdoin Consortium, an athletic conference and inter-library exchange with Bates and Colby College. Bowdoin has over 30 varsity teams and the school mascot was selected as a Polar Bear in 1913 to honor a Bowdoin alumnus who led the first successful expedition to the north pole. Between the years 1821 and 1921, Bowdoin operated a medical school called the Medical School of Maine.
The main Bowdoin campus is located near Casco Bay and the Androscoggin River. In addition to its Brunswick campus, Bowdoin also owns a 118-acre coastal studies center on Orr's Island, and a 200-acre scientific field station on Kent Island in the Bay of Fundy. In 2017, the college has been ranked as third-best liberal arts college in the country by U.S. News & World Report.
Bowdoin College was chartered in 1794 by the Massachusetts State Legislature and was later redirected under the jurisdiction of the Maine Legislature. It was named for former Massachusetts governor James Bowdoin, whose son James Bowdoin III was an early benefactor. At the time of its founding, it was the easternmost college in the United States, as it was located in Maine.
Bowdoin began to develop in the 1820s, a decade in which Maine became an independent state as a result of the Missouri Compromise and graduated U.S. President Franklin Pierce who played an integral role the nation's enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act, and advocated for the land rights of cotton plantations. The college also graduated two literary philosophers, the writers Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, both of whom graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1825. Franklin and Hawthorne began an official militia company called the 'Bowdoin Cadets'.
From its founding, Bowdoin was known to educate the sons of the politically elite and "catered very largely to the wealthy conservative from the state of Maine." The establishment of Bates College in nearby Lewiston, began a century-long academic and athletic rivalry between the two colleges ultimately creating a complex and enduring relationship. During the first half of the 19th century, Bowdoin required of its students a certificate of "good moral character" as well as knowledge of Latin and Ancient Greek, geography, algebra and the major works of Cicero, Xenophon, Virgil and Homer.