Mary B. Wheeler Home

Lectures Series

Ethnographic Documentation


The Mary B. Wheeler collection of photographic slides is one of the largest individual collections in the United States. Amassed over the course of fourteen trips to India and Sri Lanka, the collection provides us with over 12,000 images presenting an astounding diversity of subjects and places from nearly every corner of the Indian Subcontinent. The image quality is exceptional, clearly justifying the well earned praise she received for her photographic achievements from the National Geographic Society, the Indian Government, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the University of Pennsylvania Museum.

We, at the University of Pennsylvania, are very grateful to Mary Binney Wheeler and her family, for their generous bequest of this collection to our library archives. Through this website, we endeavor to make this remarkable gift accessible to a much greater audience.

A 'Renaissance Woman' with a 'passion for the arts'*, Mary Binney Montgomery Wheeler was truly a remarkable individual. She was born into a prominent Philadelphia family, as the daughter of financier Col. Robert Leaming Montgomery, founder of the investment firm of Janney Montgomery Scott, and noted needlepoint artist, Charlotte Hope Binney Taylor. However, it did not take long for her to establish herself as a unique individual with a strong mind of her own.

Beginning her youth as a music prodigy, she began training as a pianist at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia under Moritz Rosenthal. At the age of 17, she performed as a soloist at Carnegie Hall, and recorded "The Carnival of the Animals" with Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Her love of music led her towards a fascination with dance and choreography. In 1932, she formed the Montgomery Ballet company, which performed until the outbreak of World War II, after which she cultivated her love of dance by serving as the ballet mistress with the Lyric Opera of Philadelphia, the Civic Grand Opera and the Robin Hood Dell. In addition, she maintained her own studio on Walnut Street in Center City, Philadelphia. In 1946, she married the steel industry executive John Pierce Wheeler and moved into his home in Ardmore along with her two previously adopted daughters. Her marriage did not slow down her continued artistic explorations, as she continued to work as a choreographer and photographer, winning international recognition for her activities.

Mary B. Wheeler's interest in South Asia and Indian art arose out of her friendship with the late Dr. Stella Kramrisch, the curator of Indian art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Interest turned into passion as she went on to make no fewer than fourteen trips to the Indian subcontinent, meticulously recording every aspect of the art, culture and landscape that she encountered. Returning to Philadelphia, Mary B. Wheeler delighted in sharing her experiences with friends, family and the greater public through a series of lectures. Indeed, this was a treasure that she imparted with a youthful eagerness even in her last years, as she passed away suddenly of a heart attack on Sunday, April 23, 1995, shortly after delivering a slide show and lecture on India as a benefit for the Church of the Good Shepherd in Rosement. She was 87 years old.

*(Philadelphia Daily News, April 26, 1995 and Philadelphia Inquirer, April 25, 1995, respectively).