With a heritage that goes back to more than a hundred years, Cotton College, the premier seat of higher learning in Northeast India, unequivocally occupies the pride of place among the institutions of its kind in the North-Eastern part of the country. Having contributed significantly to the academic and cultural life of the region the institution has not only withstood the test of time but has also carved a niche for itself in the sphere of higher education in the country. Contemporaneous with Murarichand College of Sylhet (now in Bangladesh) of the undivided India under the British rule, Cotton College came into existence on 27th May, 1901 through the untiring efforts of such magnanimous and illustrious sons of the soil like Late Manik Chandra Barooah and Rai Bahadur Bhuban Ram Das, backed by the unstinted support of the intelligentsia of the region of that time. However, had it not been for the unreserved support and concern of the then Chief Commissioner of the then Assam Province from 1896 to 1902, Sir Henry John Stedman Cotton, K.C.S.I., the institution would not have perhaps seen the light of day. While the time came, therefore, to express their sense of gratitude to the foremost popular ruler of the province, the people of ‘Gauhati’ decided to name the institution itself after him.
The first admission took place on 17th June, 1901 with 37 students in the first year F.A. Class and 2 students in the second year of the same course. The faculty was consisted of only five members including Prof. Frederick William Südmersen (1871 – 1953), the first Principal of the college from 1901 to 1926. The other four faculty members were Prof. Chunilal De, Prof. Indu Bhusan Brahmachary, Prof. Paresh Nath Lahiri and Prof. Maulvi Abu Nasr Muhammad Oheed. Classes during the initial years of the establishment of the College were held in the building which presently houses Chemistry Department of the College. However, no girl student was admitted to the course. It was only in 1933 that two girl students were admitted to the first year Intermediate (Science) class of the College for the first time thus marking the beginning of co-education in the history of higher learning in this part of the country.
The College was first affiliated to Calcutta University, Kolkata. It was under this university itself that the institution developed into a full-fledged Degree College and barring Persian, secured affiliation for the Honours course too in all the subjects taught then. However, with the establishment of Gauhati University in 1948, it became one of its original constituent colleges. Although Post-Graduate classes in certain subjects like English, Economics and Botany were introduced in the College at different points of time under Calcutta University itself, such classes had to be finally discontinued as part of economy drive and also because of the establishment of Gauhati University. It was only in 1969 that the Assam State Government decided to introduce PG classes in Physics in the College on a permanent affiliation basis. Subsequently, the benefit of PG classes was extended to other subjects as well and finally on 17th October, 1992, the then Hon’ble President of India, Late Dr. Shankar Dayal Sharma, at a glittering function held in the premises of the College formally declared Cotton College as a Post-Graduate institution. Today, PG teaching is done in the College in as many as 21 subjects in 20 Departments. Now, the College, which began with 39 students and 5 teachers only, currently has a student enrolment of more than 5000 right from Higher Secondary to the PG level and a faculty strength of 242 (including the faculty in adhoc basis). Cotton College was accredited ‘Grade A’ by the National Assessment & Accreditation Council (NAAC) in the year 2004 and the University Grants Commission (UGC) has identified it as a ‘College with Potential for Excellence’ in 2005.