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It was established in 1818 by George Ramsay, 9th Earl of Dalhousie, and was named in his honor. However, the school did not accept any students until 1838, and even then was open to applications sporadically due to financial troubles. It officially reopened in 1863.
The university operates the largest library system in Atlantic Canada and is considered to rank in the Top 250 universities in the world. One of the topics of study that it is best known for its agriculture, as well as marine biology. It is the location of the headquarters of the Ocean Tracking Network.