Engineer and architect, Joseph M. Wilson began his career with considerable work for the Pennsylvania Railroad, in whose employ he remained from 1860 to 1876. Wilson had been born in Phoenixville, PA, the son of civil engineer William Hasell Wilson and Jane (Miller) Wilson. He received his education in civil engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, graduating in 1858 and, following a two-year special course in analytical chemistry, began working for the Pennsylvania Railroad. In 1876 Wilson's career was irrevocably changed when he was chosen to oversee the design and construction of the main exhibition building and Memorial Hall for the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Spurred by the recognition and promise of further work, Wilson, his brother John Allston Wilson
and Frederick Thorn
established the firm of Wilson Bros. & Co.
In this endeavor they were joined by younger brother Henry W. Wilson
in 1886. The office continued the railroad design and engineering work in which all three brothers had experience and expanded the building types with which they dealt to include residences, commercial structures, and medical facilities. With the patronage of the Drexel family in Philadelphia, the firm designed not only office buildings, but also the Drexel Institute at 32nd and Market streets in Philadelphia.
Wilson served as president of the Franklin Institute from 1887 to 1893 and wrote numerous articles on scientific and engineering topics.