Harry M. Wegeforth

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Harry M. Wegeforth
Harry Wegeforth.jpg
Born January 7, 1882
Baltimore, Maryland
Died June 25, 1941
San Diego, California
Nationality American
Occupation Physician
Known for Founder of the San Diego Zoo

Harry Milton Wegeforth was a physician in San Diego who led the effort to create the San Diego Zoo in 1916, and served as president of the board of directors of the Zoological Society of San Diego from its founding until his death in 1941. In addition to providing the inspiration for the zoo’s founding and leading its board for 25 years, he also tirelessly traveled the world, personally collecting animals for the zoo. "The history of the Zoo, at least in its early stages, is the story of one man with a vision, Dr. Harry Wegeforth."[1]

Personal life[edit]

Wegeforth was born in Maryland where his father was a physician. He got his medical degree from the University of Maryland and postgraduate training at Johns Hopkins University.[2] In 1910 he moved to San Diego and set up a medical practice, later joined by his brother Paul Wegeforth, also a physician. Both brothers both served as physicians for San Diego's Panama-California Exposition (1915), and "Dr. Harry" was also a member of the Exposition's board of directors.[3]

San Diego Zoo[edit]

He had always had an interest in animals, and he became concerned about what would become of the exotic animals that would be left behind in Balboa Park after the closing of the Exposition. The animals included a lion, bear, deer, buffalo, elk, and ducks. He conceived the idea of using them as the nucleus for a different type of zoo, where animals and plants would be displayed in natural settings, with bars not in evidence.[4] He gathered several like-minded men, including his brother Paul Wegeforth, local physician Fred Baker, Navy surgeon J. C. Thompson, and naturalist Frank Stephens, who was associated with the Natural History Society (later the San Diego Natural History Museum). They became the founding directors of the Zoological Society of San Diego, with Wegeforth serving as its founding president.

Wegeforth launched a drive to secure funds for a new facility. The city provided a permanent site in Balboa Park with the proviso that the city would actually own all the animals and the Zoological Society would manage them. Many local philanthropists responded to Wegeforth’s urging and provided funding. He made collecting trips to other zoos and to many other countries, collecting animals personally rather than through dealers, often trading local species (such as rattlesnakes and sea lions) for exotic species (such as elephants and koalas).[4]

His hands-on management of the zoo, combined with early financial problems, caused a frequent turnover in zoo directors. The most prominent was Frank Buck, who went to work as temporary director for the San Diego Zoo on June 13, 1923, signed to a three year contract by Wegeforth. Dr. William T. Hornaday, director of the Bronx Zoo, had recommended Buck for the job. But Buck quickly clashed with the strong-willed Wegeforth and left the zoo after three months to return to animal collecting.[5]

In 1927, after several other equally short-lived zoo directors, Wegeforth appointed the zoo's bookkeeper, Belle Benchley, to the top position in the zoo, that of executive secretary. He soon realized that she was functioning as the zoo’s director so he gave her that title. For the next 15 years the two of them worked together to transform the zoo from a small collection of animals to an innovative, world-class zoo.

He and Neil Morgan co-wrote a history of the San Diego Zoo called It Began With a ROAR![6]

Wegeforth continued to serve as president and chief promoter of the zoo until his death in 1941 at the age of 59.

Other civic activities[edit]

In 1926 he was a key mover in the decision to purchase and bring to San Diego the sailing ship Star of India, now a museum ship in San Diego Bay.[7]


In 1936, the zoo's amphitheater was named Wegeforth Bowl in his honor.

Harry M. Wegeforth Elementary School opened in San Diego in 1957. The site was dedicated on February 9, 1959 with Mrs. Harry Wegeforth and family in attendance.[2]


  1. ^ A World of Animals: The San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park, book review by Raymond Starr, Journal of San Diego History, Vol. 31 no. 2, Spring 1985
  2. ^ a b Wegeforth Elementary School website
  3. ^ The San Diego Zoological Garden: A foundation to build on, by Marjorie Betts Shaw, in ‘’Journal of San Diego History,’’ Volume 24, Number 3, 1978.
  4. ^ a b Encyclopedia of the World's Zoos, Volume 3, by Catherine E. Ball, page 1130
  5. ^ San Diego Historical Society History News, Vol. 23, No. 5, May 1987, p. 3. Past Comes Alive, Fascinating facts from the Archives, Frank Buck in San Diego.
  6. ^ Wegeforth, Harry M, and Neil Morgan, ‘’It began with a ROAR! The beginning of the world-famous San Diego Zoo,’’ San Diego Zoological Society, San Diego, 1953
  7. ^ Jerry McMullen: An Uncommon Man, Journal of San Diego History, Vol. 28, no. 1, Winter 1982