At the time of his appointment in 1868 as the second chancellor, John Fraser was serving as the President of the Pennsylvania Agricultural College. His arrival was fortuitous for the fledgling University as he and several members of the faculty began to change it from a struggling preparatory school to a thriving college. One of his greatest contributions to the University was securing the funding for University Hall, the second building on campus, later known as Fraser Hall.
John Fraser was a professor of mathematics and astronomy at Jefferson College in Canonsburg, PA when in 1862 he led his own company of college soldiers to join the 140th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. He rose in the ranks to be the regiment's colonel. Fraser was taken as a prisoner of war during the Siege of Petersburg and incarcerated at Camp Sorghum in Columbia, South Carolina. He ended the war with the rank of brigadier general in the volunteer army.