The Wagner Free Institute of Science sits in the heart of North Central Philadelphia and offers visitors a time portal to a 19th century natural history museum. Formally incorporated in 1855, the institute is the brainchild of founder William Wagner, a noted Philadelphia merchant, philanthropist and amateur scientist who lived from 1796 to 1885. Wagner grew up in Philadelphia, attended the University of Pennsylvania in 1808 and then did an internship with Girard College founder Stephen Girard. His time with Girard greatly influenced his life’s work, as he chose to devote his efforts on projects that help educate the public for free. Philadelphia was home to many prominent scientists, and Wagner became a prominent member of that community as the late 19th century gave rise to significant growth and interest in the fields of anthropology, archeology and paleontology. Wagner contributed by lecturing on science, but was hampered by his location in North Philadelphia. According to Temple University archives, the area around Montgomery Avenue and 17th Street was a semi-rural suburb that was difficult to access in certain seasons. Wagner wrote about the difficulties his lecture-goers had getting to the institute along mostly unpaved roads during bad weather. Wagner also complained about the lack of gas lines in the area. For nearly 20 years, the institute conducted late afternoon and evening public lectures without the aid of gas lighting. He notes in his 1870’s entry: “After continued and uninterrupted efforts to get our own street lighted with gas we succeeded in November 1873 in obtaining one lamp at the lecture room door, one at the front door and another at the NW corner of 17th and Montgomery. This being the first light obtained from the city lamps, no corporation ever evidenced such a contemptible disregard of the conveniences of the people as this gas company… .” Wagner continued to lecture and lead the unique institution he had founded until his death in 1885, when a board of trustees appointed noted biologist Joseph Leidy as director. By the turn of the century, the institute was a leading force in public education in Philadelphia, offering free classes and allowing admission to women. According to Wagner Institute’s website, it was the motivating force in 1892 for the opening of the first branch of the Philadelphia Public Library System. In 1901, a west wing was added to the institute’s building for use by the Free Library. The Wagner Free Institute of Science continues to serve as an educational beacon for those interested in exploring the history of nature and other scientific endeavors. It has more than 100,000 specimens, including Wagner’s mineral collection — one of the oldest in the country — and his fossil collection. Located at 1700 W. Montgomery Ave., the institute is open to visitors from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. Schools and organized groups of more than six people are asked to make reservations by calling (215) 763-6529, ext. 17. For more information, visit wagnerfreeinstitute.org.

The Wagner Free Institute of Science sits in the heart of North Central Philadelphia and offers visitors a time portal to a 19th century natural history museum.

Formally incorporated in 1855, the institute is the brainchild of founder William Wagner, a noted Philadelphia merchant, philanthropist and amateur scientist who lived from 1796 to 1885.

Wagner grew up in Philadelphia, attended the University of Pennsylvania in 1808 and then did an internship with Girard College founder Stephen Girard. His time with Girard greatly influenced his life’s work, as he chose to devote his efforts on projects that help educate the public for free.

Philadelphia was home to many prominent scientists, and Wagner became a prominent member of that community as the late 19th century gave rise to significant growth and interest in the fields of anthropology, archeology and paleontology. Wagner contributed by lecturing on science, but was hampered by his location in North Philadelphia.

According to Temple University archives, the area around Montgomery Avenue and 17th Street was a semi-rural suburb that was difficult to access in certain seasons. Wagner wrote about the difficulties his lecture-goers had getting to the institute along mostly unpaved roads during bad weather.

Wagner also complained about the lack of gas lines in the area. For nearly 20 years, the institute conducted late afternoon and evening public lectures without the aid of gas lighting.

He notes in his 1870’s entry: “After continued and uninterrupted efforts to get our own street lighted with gas we succeeded in November 1873 in obtaining one lamp at the lecture room door, one at the front door and another at the NW corner of 17th and Montgomery. This being the first light obtained from the city lamps, no corporation ever evidenced such a contemptible disregard of the conveniences of the people as this gas company… .”

Wagner continued to lecture and lead the unique institution he had founded until his death in 1885, when a board of trustees appointed noted biologist Joseph Leidy as director. By the turn of the century, the institute was a leading force in public education in Philadelphia, offering free classes and allowing admission to women.

According to Wagner Institute’s website, it was the motivating force in 1892 for the opening of the first branch of the Philadelphia Public Library System. In 1901, a west wing was added to the institute’s building for use by the Free Library.

The Wagner Free Institute of Science continues to serve as an educational beacon for those interested in exploring the history of nature and other scientific endeavors. It has more than 100,000 specimens, including Wagner’s mineral collection — one of the oldest in the country — and his fossil collection.

Located at 1700 W. Montgomery Ave., the institute is open to visitors from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. Schools and organized groups of more than six people are asked to make reservations by calling (215) 763-6529, ext. 17. For more information, visit wagnerfreeinstitute.org.

bbooker@phillytrib.com (215) 893-5749

bbooker@phillytrib.com (215) 893-5749

bbooker@phillytrib.com (215) 893-5749

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