William Wagner was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on January 15, 1796, the son of Mary Ritz Baker and John Wagner, a wealthy merchant (listed as a "gentleman" on the 1810 census). He received an academic education, and had wanted to study medicine, but his parents decided otherwise, sending him instead to work in the counting-room of Stephen Girard. In 1816 Wagner left on a trading voyage for Girard that lasted nearly two years. During the course of the voyage he made port in many places and gathered large collections of shells, plants, minerals and fossils.
After returning home Wagner engaged in a number of different business enterprises, including the Snowden & Wagner mercantile company (1819-1825) and the Lennoxville steam saw mill (1825-1828) before finally retiring in 1840. After living abroad and gathering more specimens of all kinds for two years (1841-1842) he returned once again to Philadelphia where he devoted himself to the task of organizing his collections. He first married Caroline Moore Say (1824), and second married Louisa Binney (1814-1898) in 1841.
Believing that an education in the sciences should be available to everyone, he began offering scientific lectures in his home at no charge to anyone who was interested. The first lectures were given in 1847 and by 1852 his audiences had grown so large that a lecture hall was required. Three years later he formally established the Wagner Free Institute of Science, with a faculty of lecturers. In 1865 a building was finally dedicated, and Wagner transferred the building and its various collections (and a library) to a board of trustees on condition that the institute forever be dedicated to providing instruction in the natural sciences. To accomplish this grand purpose is thought to have cost him over half a million dollars. He continued as President of the institute until his death in Philadelphia on January 17, 1885, and was succeeded as President by his nephew, Samuel Wagner (1842-1937).
Today the Wagner Free Institute museum has on exhibit over 100,000 specimens of plant, animals, minerals and fossils. Highlights include Wagner's personal mineral collection, which ranks as one of the oldest in the country. His fossil collection contains specimens from many of the 19th century's most important American and European localities. Joseph Leidy (1823-1891) was hired to reorganize the museum exhibits in the late 1880s, and his arrangement is preserved largely intact today, giving the museum the feel of a time capsule from over 100 years ago.
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[Citation format for this entry:
WILSON, Wendell E. (2017)
Biographical Archive, at www.mineralogicalrecord.com.]
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(by Thomas Sully, 1836)