Publication Date

December 1, 2005

Perspectives Section

AHA Annual Meeting


Medicine, Science, & Technology, State & Local (US)

Philadelphia has been a center for science, medicine, and technology since Benjamin Franklin electrified turkeys and John Bartram cultivated Carolina allspice. Local institutions that preserve this heritage are looking forward to welcoming the AHA annual meeting with activities and exhibits.

The Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF) is a center for research and public outreach concerning the material culture of chemistry and molecular sciences, technologies, and industries (315 Chestnut St., 215-925-2222, Market/Frankfort Line to 5th and Market). CHF’s rare book collections span six centuries of the history of science; its oral histories document the lives and thoughts of over 200 prominent innovators, industry leaders, and Nobel laureates; its object collections include historic instruments, apparatus, and products; and its art collection presents a fascinating view of alchemy from the 17th through the 19th century. From fall 2005 through spring 2006, CHF will host a special exhibit, “The Sky’s the Limit,” using images, archives, and objects to display the effervescent, sometimes cockeyed optimism among American chemists and their public in the post-WWII era.

CHF, in conjunction with the Local Arrangements Committee, invites AHA participants to a reception and exhibit tour at the foundation on the theme of “Networking Outside the Conference: Jobs for Historians beyond Academe.” The reception will take place on Friday, January 6, 2006, 5:30–7 p.m., and makes a perfect start to an evening exploring the restaurants in the Old City area, with plenty of time to make it back to the meeting for the presidential address.

The American Philosophical Society (APS), just two blocks away, was founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1743 to “promote useful knowledge” (104 S 5th St., 215-440-3400, Market/Frankford Line to 5th and Market). In the 18th and 19th centuries the American Philosophical Society lived up to its mission by providing the nation’s first library, learned society, museum, and patent office, while the present-day APS sponsors exhibitions, publications, fellowships, and research grants. Many historians know that the library is a gold mine for research in science and technology as well as in early American history and culture. They may not be as familiar with the museum (in Philosophical Hall, 104 S 5th St.), which opened in 2001 and features rotating thematic exhibitions such as “The Princess and the Patriot: Ekaterina Dashkova, Benjamin Franklin, and the Age of Enlightenment,” which will run from February 18–December 31, 2006.

The Academy of Natural Sciences is dedicated to “the encouragement and cultivation of the sciences, and the advancement of useful learning” (1900 Benjamin Franklin Pkwy., 215-299-1000, Subway/Surface Line to 19th and Market, or bus routes 32 and 33). Permanent exhibits at the museum include dinosaurs, crystals and gems, the hall of endangered species, and Thomas Jefferson’s fossil collection. In January 2006, the featured exhibit will be “Frogs—A Chorus of Colors.” The academy also houses 17 million specimens of plants, animals, and other organisms, and visitors can view a portion of Ruth Patrick’s beautiful diatom specimens, many of which were collected in the Philadelphia area as part of her pioneering work in river ecology. The Ewell Sale Stewart Library at the academy contains 200,000 volumes, including publications from learned societies all over the world from the 18th century to the present. Authors and artists represented in the collection include Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, William Bartram, Charles Wilson Peale, and John James Audubon. Library hours are Monday–Thursday, 1–4:30 p.m., by appointment only.

A few blocks away from the academy is one of the most distinctive museums in Philadelphia, the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia (19 S 22nd St., 215-563-3737 ext. 211, Subway/Surface Line to19th and Market). The museum harks back to an earlier era of anatomical and medical education, when physicians carefully preserved anatomical structures and oddities as teaching specimens. Among the thousands of pathological preparations, medical instruments, and wax, plastic, and papier maché models can be found the Soap Lady, conjoined twins, and forensic evidence from the past two centuries.

The Historical Library of the College of Physicians is one of Philadelphia’s great cultural treasures. Established in 1788, it is currently an independent research library whose rare books, journals, manuscripts, and archival collections are indispensable resources for the history of American and European medicine and related fields. Highlights include college founder John Morgan’s copy of Giambattista Morgagni’s On the Seats and Causes of Disease; physician-novelist S. Weir Mitchell’s letters, hospital records, and case notes; and medical journals documenting three centuries of health and disease. The library is open Tuesday–Friday, 10 a.m.–4 p.m., and appointments are recommended: 215-563-3737 ext. 297.

Further afield, but well worth the trip, is the Wagner Free Institute of Science, founded by Philadelphia philanthropist William Wagner in 1855 (1700 W Montgomery Ave., 215-763-6529, Broad St. local to Cecil B. Moore Ave.). Wagner’s goal was to make free science instruction accessible to all, and the Wagner is still a leader in science education for both children and adults. The lecture hall has been in continuous use since the 1880s, and the museum contains an impeccably preserved 19th-century natural history collection. The library is particularly strong in 19th-century science and science education.

This article concludes with a trio of sights to round out the schedule of the dedicated science, medicine, and technology tourist. Franklin Court incorporates the site of Franklin’s house into an in- and outdoor exhibit of his life and times (enter from either Chestnut between 3rd and 4th, or 316-322 Market, open
10 a.m.–5 p.m.). The post office at 316 Market uses the postmark “B. Free Franklin” to cancel stamps. The Pennsylvania Hospital is the starting point for a historic walking tour that takes visitors up to the third floor surgical amphitheater, opened in 1804. It is the oldest surgical amphitheater in North America and was in use until 1868 (8th and Spruce, 215-829-3270). The aptly named Philip Syng Physick was staff surgeon at the hospital from 1794–1813, and the Physick House is lovingly furnished in the Federal style to which he would have been accustomed (321 S 4th St., 215-925-7866).

Lisa Rosner (Richard Stockton Coll. of New Jersey) is a member of the Local Arrangements Committee.