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The Polar Explorer, Entomologist and Museum Founder

Reading Public Museum, Reading, PA
Levi W. Mengel

Levi Walter Mengel was born 27 September 1868 in Reading, Berks County, PA. He was the

youngest son of Matthias Schoener and Amelia Matilda (nee Soder) Mengel. His father was a lawyer who was elected a magistrate and was one of the first Aldermans of Reading.

One day, as a lad, he was supposed to be practicing his music lesson. His mother did not hear the piano whacking she expected to hear issuing from the music room and started on a search for him. She found him in the back yard, lifting up every stone he could find, making his first "collection" - tiny Pill Bugs.

He also became interested in birds, starting his own collection of nests and eggs about 1885. From this start he went on to postcards, then minerals, then stamps, then various insects, then the great love of his life - butterflies.

Levi was educated in the public schools and graduated from Reading High School in the class of 1886. He took up the study of chemistry and attended the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy.

Robert E. Peary

He was a noted entomologist and member of the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences. This association may have led to his appointment as the entomologist for Lieutenant Robert E. Peary's 1891 expedition to Greenland, which was sponsored by the Academy. The mission was to determine if Greenland was an island or a peninsula of the North Pole. This was the "Heroic Age of Polar Exploration."

The team sailed from Brooklyn, NY aboard the SS Kite on 6 June 1891 and arrived at Disko Island on the 27th. Levi commented: "In my search for specimens I was very successful, and probably brought home more insects than all previous Artic expeditions put together, including butterflies, moths, beetles, flies, bees and spiders." He returned to Reading on 5 September 1891 and was glad to be home, describing Greenland as "a bleak and dreary country. There is a small stretch of green skirting the shore, but back of that are the eternal mountains of ice and snow."

On 28 Jun 1892 he married Mary E. Keiser. They would have two sons; Arthur Robert and Albert Wallace Mengel.

Levi became the Instructor of Natural Sciences at the Boys' High School in the Reading School District. He also became the Secretary and Treasurer of the Reading Suburban Real Estate Company, which laid out the town of Wyomissing, a Reading suburb.

As a teacher, he used his personal collections to bring history alive for his students in the early 1900's. He believed that young minds were hungry for active participation and personal experience and continued to collect scientific and anthropological materials to use as teaching aids. He once said, "Giving a child a chance to see and handle the things about which they study is not only the greatest timesaver, but the most effective way of giving an absolutely correct impression."

In 1907, the third floor of the Reading School District administration building was converted into a museum to provide students with hands-on learning experiences. It housed donations from Levi and about 2,000 pieces acquired at the St. Louis World's Fair, allowing students to see, touch, and learn about items collected from around the globe. With the addition of several paintings, Levi's creation was renamed the Reading Public Museum and Art Gallery in 1913 and was opened to the public. As the museum's collection expanded, it became obvious that a larger space was required. The current location, which opened it 1929, was a donation to the Reading School District from local industrialists Ferdinand Thun, Henry K. Janssen and Irvin F. Impink.

In September 1909 there was stunning news. The 7 September 1909 edition of the New York Times declared on the front page "Peary Discovers the North Pole After Eight Trials in 23 Years." The discovery of the North Pole was one of the last remaining laurels of earthly exploration, a prize for which countless explorers from many nations competed for 300 years. Finally, it was Robert E. Peary, Levi's one-time expedition leader, who reported that he had successfully reached the pole in April 1909.

Frederick A. Cook

However, a week earlier, the New York Herald had printed its own front-page headline: "The North Pole is Discovered by Dr. Frederick A. Cook." Allegedly, Cook had seemingly returned from the dead after more than a year in the Arctic, claimed to have reached the pole in April 1908—a full year before Peary. Dr. Cook was a crew member with Levi on the 1891 expedition and the two formed a friendship. Now, in 1909 he was asked about Dr. Cook's achievement, to which Levi said that finding the North Pole was Cook's one ambition - his only aim in life. "He got there by sheer never and grit, backed by sound study of the conditions he had to contend with," Levi said. "When he returns I believe he will have wonderful tales to tell of what he found in a section of the earth which was never reached by any man before. He is unassuming in manner and has the true 'get there' American spirit. I have no doubt that the found the pole." (I am not sure if anyone asked his opinion about Peary's claim.) The fact that only one person could truly discover the North Pole. The journalist Lincoln Steffens hailed the battle over Peary's and Cook's competing claims as the story of the century. "Whatever the truth is, the situation is as wonderful as the Pole," he wrote. "And whatever they found there, those explorers, they have left there a story as great as a continent."

In classrooms and textbooks, Peary was long anointed the discoverer of the North Pole. The early doubts about Cook's claim, most of which emanated from the Peary camp, came to overshadow any contemporaneous doubts about Peary's claim. After Cook returned to the United States in January 1911, some members of Congress tried in 1914 and 1915 to reopen the question of who discovered the North Pole. Peary appeared before the Naval Affairs Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives to receive what he hoped would be the government's official recognition as the discoverer of the North Pole. The subcommittee approved a bill honoring Peary by a vote of 4 to 3; the minority placed on the record "deep-rooted doubts" about his claim. The bill that passed the House and Senate, and which President William Howard Taft signed that March, eschewed the word "discovery," crediting Peary only with "Arctic exploration resulting in [his] reaching the North Pole." To this day questions remain. Did either man reach the North Pole? How did Cook get so much right if he never got to the North Pole in 1908?

Besides knowing and being associated with Peary and Cook, Levi was also familiar with others in the scientific fields. He traveled extensively and made the acquaintance of prominent scientists around the world. He accumulated one of the largest collections of Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths). He exchanged butterflies with such people as Ferdinand I, Czar of Bulgaria and Grand Duke Nicholas Mikhailovich of Russia, whose collection was rated as second in importance only to Levi's.

He assisted a prominent New York textile firm in finding a new color fabric in 1917. The new color, a woven gray and white, was selected from one of the more than 30,000 butterflies in Levi's collection.

On 1 July 1939, Levi was retired at the compulsory age of 70 according to the school code. He died of a heart attack on 3 February 1941 at the age of 72 years old.

An animatronic depiction of Dr. Levi W. Mengel, Reading Public Museum


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