The Wagner Free Institute of Science
1700 W Montgomery Ave, Philadelphia, PA 19121
Hidden away at 17th and Montgomery, in the midst of the growing off-campus population of Temple University students, resides one of the city’s best and quietest treasures – the Wagner Free Institute of Science. Gentleman scientist and philanthropist William Wagner founded this Philadelphia institution in 1855 and it has remained relatively unchanged during its 161 years of service to the city’s students, both adults and children. The surrounding North Central Philadelphia has undergone much change and rebuilding during these years. However, the Institute still bears the same appearance and continues its work.
William Wagner, a Philadelphia native, began holding lectures on contemporary science in his house in Elm Grove, his estate on the outskirts of the city. Due to the lectures’ massive popularity, Wagner decided to open a more formal institution in the name of educating the common people of the city. The museum was formally incorporated in 1855 and construction on the building where the museum remains today began four years after. Notably, the architect that planned this shrine to public service and education was John McArthur Jr. who would later design Philadelphia’s City Hall.
Wagner installed his own personal mineral and fossil collection during the museum’s initial days. As a disciple of Stephen Girard, well-know Philadelphia philanthropist and founder of Girard College, Wagner chose to give more than just his belongings to public education; he strove to give himself entirely to the benefit of those less fortunate than himself. He was so inspired by Stephen Girard that upon Wagner’s death, “his directive [was] that he should be buried in the crypt beneath his building just as Girard was interred in his institute’s Founder’s Hall” (National Register).
This dedication provided an example for his successors to follow, namely the famed scientist Joseph Leidy. The Board of Trustees nominated Leidy, teaching anatomy at the University of Pennsylvania and president of the Academy of Natural Sciences, to take over as president of the Wagner Free Institute following Wagner’s death in 1885. Under the direction of Leidy, the museum underwent a few structural changes which endure into the present. Leidy chose to reorganize the museum according to Darwin’s theory of evolution, thinking that, “visitors moved from simpler to more complex organisms and through geologic times as they walked through the exhibition hall” (Wagner Free Institute).
In addition, he opened a new exhibit in 1891 and began funding expeditions. One of these went to the west coast of Florida, where the traveling scientists discovered the first known fossil of a saber-tooth tiger. This 1891 exhibit addition was the second stage of construction for the Institute. Leidy’s advancements and reorganization continue untouched today, and the labels that describe each fossil are mostly original to when said fossil was added to the Institute’s collection.
The Wagner Free Institute of Science has affected more than just science, as of William Wagner’s nephew can attest to. Samuel Wagner, a member of the Board of Trustees, along with four other local Philadelphians, applied for a charter to form the Free Library of Philadelphia in 1891. Though the small group faced some adversity, the Wagner Institute Branch became Branch Number One of the Free Library of Philadelphia in 1895. The third stage of construction culminated in the creation of a large library wing connected to the west of the structure in 1901 to support the newly created branch. This is also the last major construction that the building has undergone.
The Wagner Free Institute continues to serve the local community in the same manner as it did in the 1800s. Its dedication to the public earned the Institute a nomination to the National Register of Historic Places in December of 1990. The National Register marked down three integral reasons for its induction: firstly, that the building is remarkable in preserving its original program, “uniting the functions of a museum, research institution, and a private school”; secondly, for its association with Dr. Joseph Leidy, who served as president of the facility for the last six years of his life; and thirdly, for its demonstration of the role of philanthropy in the development of public education in the 1800s. Whether for children (the programming of the Institute reaches more than 10,000 children a year) or adults (Temple students often visit the Institute through classes), it is certain that the Institute will continue its quiet, inspired service of Philadelphia into the far future.