Philadelphia is playing host for its first science festival until the end of the week. The city was chosen by the National Science Foundation because of its rich history of innovation. Anybody who owns a map can see the legacy Benjamin Franklin has left in the area. But Philadelphia’s contributions to science go far beyond the kite and key.
‘Athens’ of the New World
Philadelphia was the center of science in the 1700s for an obvious reason: it was the center of everything in the new world. By the time of the American Revolution, it was the second largest English-speaking city in the world, lagging behind only London.
“There was Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia,” said Marty Levitt, librarian at the American Philosophical Society. “Men of science who wanted a liberal with a small “L” kind of environment in which to work, Philadelphia was it.”
President Thomas Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis to Philadelphia to prepare for his expedition west. Members of the American Philosophical Society taught Lewis how to navigate by the stars, collect and preserve plant specimens, and stay healthy on the trail.
“Jefferson’s opinion was the savants of science in America were all in Philadelphia,” Levitt said. “This was mission control, this was Houston in the very, very earliest years of the 19th century.”
Philadelphia wouldn’t remain the cultural center of the United States forever. But even after the centers of finance and government in the fledgling nation left, it would continue to be a center for innovation.
“The financial capital went to New York, the government went to Washington, but what remained in Philadelphia were the cultural institutions,” Levitt said. “The University of Pennsylvania, the American Philosophical Society, the Academy of Natural Sciences.”
These institutions have acted as a magnet for innovators ever since, Levitt said.
Institutions spur scientific innovation
In the second half of the 1800s, Philadelphia was key to the birth and growth of the field of paleontology. The first relatively complete dinosaur skeleton to be mounted was displayed in 1868 at the Academy of Natural Sciences, where it drew fascinated masses.
“The idea of dinosaurs, the idea of extinction, the idea of this great massive creature from the past that people didn’t fully understand just created a sensation,” said Susan Glassman, director of the Wagner Free Institute of Science.
The Wagner is a natural history museum a few blocks west of Temple in North Philadelphia that is frozen in the time of about 1890. On the second floor, visitors can walk through wooden cases of preserved animals and mounted skeletons organized by the same man responsible for that first dinosaur mount: Joseph Leidy.
On display toward the back of the room is the jaw of a North American saber-toothed cat, which Leidy identified and named Smilodon floridanus.
Leidy, called the “last man who knew everything” by his biographer because of his expertise across a dizzying array of disciplines, added scientific research to the institute’s mission as he commissioned the expedition that found the bones. During his tenure, he organized the institute’s free lecture series, which continues today. Teaching and curatorial positions at several schools and museums in the area allowed Leidy, who was not independently wealthy like many scientists of his time, to support himself.
“Philadelphia was an incredible place for someone with his talents, interests and skills to be doing science in the 19th century,” Glassman said.
Center of medicine
The man known as the father of American surgery was a Philadelphian, and the city has been one of many medical firsts since then. The heart-lung machine– a device capable of pumping blood and delivering oxygen outside of the body that paved the way for successful cardiac surgery—was invented here. Thomas Jefferson University archivist Michael Angelo describes a photo depicting the operating room in 1953 during the first successful surgery with the machine. It was packed with people.
“Some people are just holding masks over their mouths, there’s one person with a newspaper under his arm as though he had just stepped in off the hallway to witness this moment,” Angelo said. “It’s kind of remarkable.”
Dr. John Gibbon’s work on the device spanned more than a quarter of a century, first at the University of Pennsylvania and then at Jefferson.
The machine was thrown out decades ago, but a medical resident fished the artificial lung out of a Dumpster. It was recently returned to the University archives, where it remains as just one piece of Philadelphia’s rich science history.