The House was named in honor of Henry Dunster, a "learned, conscionable and industrious man," who became the first President of Harvard University, and was appointed to the Harvard presidency at the age of thirty-one, immediately after his arrival in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1640. He held the office during the early "troublous" years of the Colony, and left the College in 1654 after it had become a well-established institution.
Dunster is located on the banks of the Charles River, next to the John W. Weeks Footbridge, which links Harvard's Allston and Cambridge campuses. Legend has it that seniors traditionally take shots in the dining hall and then jump from the footbridge the night before commencement. From above its architectural shape, unusual among the River Houses, resembles a branching flowchart due to the odd trapezoidal footprint of the land on which it was built.
Dunster, like many of the Harvard Houses, has many yearly traditions, including The Messiah sing-a-long in the winter, the Goat Roast in the spring, the keg races in the fall, and the yearly Dunster House Opera
Dunster's current Masters are Roger Porter, who served in the White House during the administrations of both Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, and Ann Porter. Carlos E. Diaz currently serves as the Allston Burr Resident Dean. The House's first master was Chester N. Greenough (Harvard Class of 1898), English Professor and former Dean of Harvard College. Former masters include Phyllis and Raoul Bott, Karel and Hetty Liem, James and Elizabeth Vorenberg, and Sally Falk Moore. Karel Liem was a fish biologist and would say at every house assembly that for every student's name that he remembered, he would forget the name of a fish.
Famous inhabitants of Dunster House have included Al Gore, Tommy Lee Jones, and John Lithgow, who were roommates there in the late 1960s. Other notable Dunster alumni include Al Franken, Darren Aronofsky, Christopher Durang, Susan Faludi, David Halberstam, Lindsay Hyde, Norman Mailer, Erich Segal, Caspar Weinberger, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Deval Patrick. For many years Dunster was reputed to have the highest grade-point average (GPA) of any house. There was a murder-suicide in Dunster House in May 1995 in which Sinedu Tadesse murdered her roommate, Trang Ho; the previous month, April 1995, two Dunster-affiliated students, Kathryn L. Tucker '94 and Ansgar Hansen '97, committed suicide.