Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

Caspar Wistar

1761 - 1818 

Caspar Wistar was a pioneering American physician and anatomist. He was the grandson of a well-known Quaker glassmaker of the same name, a German immigrant who established the first successful glass-blowing business in North America, in Salem, New Jersey.

He was educated at the Friends Charter School in Philadelphia and was an active Quaker throughout his life. He became interested in studying medicine when, aged sixteen, he helped tend the wounded after the Battle of Germantown in 1777, during the American War of Independence. He took his Bachelor of Medicine at the University of Philadelphia in 1782 and received his Doctorate of Medicine from the University of Edinburgh in 1796.  He so impressed his tutors there that, had university regulations permitted it, he would have been awarded his degree after just one year. His doctoral thesis, entitled De Animo Demisso, on depression, was translated from Latin into English and published in London. According to the account of his life in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography, reading it had given 'unspeakable relief' to some sufferers from hypochondria. His fellow students made him president of both the Royal Medical Society and the Edinburgh Natural History Society.

He returned to Philadelphia in 1787 to practise his profession and was appointed one of the physicians to the Philadelphia Dispensary. From 1789 to 1792, he was professor of chemistry and medicine at the College of Philadelphia, and then adjunct professor of anatomy, midwifery and surgery at the University of Philadelphia until 1808, when he was appointed to the Chair of Anatomy, a post he held until his death. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1803.

Wistar remained in Philadelphia during the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, caring for many victims and eventually contracting the disease himself. He worked alongside Dr Benjamin Rush, who advocated bleeding and purging as treatments for the disease. Wistar was unconvinced by this, especially after his own experience.  Soon after his own recovery, he became an early promoter of vaccination. He went on to found the Society for Circulating the Benefit of Vaccination in 1809, which vaccinated over a thousand people in its first year, though it brought him into conflict with Dr Rush.

In 1797, he was sent some fossils that had been discovered in a cave in West Virginia and presented to the American Philosophical Society by the statesman, Thomas Jefferson. Drawing on his great expertise in anatomy, Wistar correctly identified them as belonging to a giant ground sloth, publishing his conclusions in an article published in 1799. Later, he proposed that the species should be named Megalonyx jeffersonii. He also made a study of other specimens brought back by the famous Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804.

He was renowned for his teaching. He helped his students understand anatomy by making large-scale anatomical models of the human body out of wood. He often illustrated his lectures with preserved human cadaver limbs and organs injected with wax.  These teaching aids later became the core of the Wistar and Horner Museum of Anatomy, opened by his long-time assistant, William Horner, in 1822, and were later moved to the Wistar Institute, Philadelphia, founded in his memory by his great-nephew in 1892.

He also wrote a celebrated textbook - A System of Anatomy for the Use of Students of Medicine. It ran to nine editions. After Wistar’s death, and in his eulogy in celebration of Wistar’s life, fellow physician Charles Caldwell described this book as, “without rival, in any language.”

Wistar belonged to the Pennsylvania Prison Society, the Humane Society, and the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery, of which he became president in 1813. His concern about slavery dated back to his early adulthood: in 1791 he is known to have bought and then freed a slave.

In the winter, he would throw his house open once a week and host gatherings of students, scientists, locals and distinguished visitors to discuss topics of interest – a tradition maintained after his death by the Wistar Association.

Caspar Wistar married twice, though his first wife, Isabella Marshall, died two years later. In 1798 he married Elizabeth Mifflin; they had three children, Richard, Mifflin, and Elizabeth.

His friend, Thomas Nuttall, named the plant genus Wisteria in his honour.

The Wistar Institute continues today as a leader in the field of bio-medical research.

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Further Reading and Credits

Charles Caldwell. An Eulogium on Caspar Wistar, M.D. (Philadelphia, 1818)