How Penn became a giant in advancing knowledge

William Pepper Jr

William Pepper Jr., provost of the University of Pennsylvania from 1881 to 1894

From the collections of the University Archives

Research was not part of Benjamin Franklin’s basic plan.

What he founded was an institution of learning, of passing on knowledge from one generation to the next.

But, by the 20th century, Penn had become something far more ambitious. Its goal was not just to pass along knowledge but to create it. And the means of creating it was research.

The man with the vision that transformed the University into a research institution was William Pepper, said Archives Director Mark Lloyd.

Pepper, the provost from 1881 to 1894, is the man whose seated bronze likeness, draped in academic robes, overlooks the Perelman Quad from behind College Hall. A professor of medicine here prior to becoming provost, Pepper oversaw the creation of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the University’s first laboratories—centers for research.

Prior to GSAS’s creation in 1882, the University included the College, which granted the bachelor of arts degree, and five professional schools—Medicine, Law, Engineering, Dentistry and the newly created Wharton—whose primary mission was training practitioners.

GSAS’ first Ph.D.

With GSAS, a school mainly to train researchers, the tide turned.

Seven years later, GSAS turned out its first Ph.D., a physicist, someone whom the university recognized, in bestowing the degree, as “a person fully trained and capable of contributing to the advancement of knowledge,” said Lloyd.

In other words, according to Lloyd, undergraduates “are typically acquiring a core body of knowledge,” but graduate students are being trained as investigators “who mastered a body of existing knowledge in an academic discipline and advanced knowledge in that area.”

But GSAS was part of a wider movement. At approximately the same time, some of the other schools began to include research in their mission.

Midway through the Pepper administration, the shift was clear. The School of Engineering created the Mechanical Laboratory in 1890 on the site of modern-day Irvine Auditorium. A year later, the University became the host and sponsor to the Wistar Institute of Anatomy and Biology. By 1894, Pepper was able to raise enough money to create a research center in his own field—the William Pepper Laboratory of Clinical Medicine.

And after Pepper’s tenure ended, the Randall Morgan Laboratory of Physics (1901) and the Medical Laboratories Building (1904) expanded the research endeavor.

Enduring centers of research

Traces of those research centers, all more than a century old, remain on campus today, Lloyd said. The Mechanical Laboratory burned down in 1906 and its research moved into the Towne Building. The Pepper Laboratory was succeeded by the Maloney Building; the Randall Morgan Laboratory, originally housed on 34th Street, moved in 1954 to the David Rittenhouse Labs; and the Medical Laboratories Building is now called the John Morgan Building. It still resides where originally established.

Other research institutions begun at the University during that period have dissolved, like the Henry Phipps Institute, founded 1903, to research tuberculosis. Phipps was a victim of its own success.

Today’s University includes more than a hundred research centers and institutes, all expanding human knowledge. But they owe their presence here to William Pepper and the first 25 years of investment in research at Penn.

Originally published on September 19, 2002