Historical Markers
The Wistar Institute of Anatomy and Biology Historical Marker
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The Wistar Institute of Anatomy and Biology

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Dedication Date:
November 14, 2007

Behind the Marker

Exterior, color photograph, springtime.
The Wistar Institute, 3601 Spruce Street, Philadelphia, PA, circa 2008.
In the early 1800s Philadelphia was home to some of the nation's most prominent private academies for the study of the sciences, new technologies, and medicine, including the American Philosophical Society, the College of Physicians, the Franklin Institute, and the Academy of Natural Sciences. In 1892, these were joined by The Wistar Institute of Anatomy and Biology, funded by Philadelphia jurist and businessman Isaac Jones Wistar (1827-1905).

Isaac Wistar came from a long line of doctors. His great uncle, noted Philadelphia physician markerCaspar Wistar, (1761-1818) was one of the early Republic's great anatomists and first paleontologists.
Brigadier General Isaac Jones Wistar, standing, in full military dress.
Brigadier General Isaac Jones Wistar, circa 1864.
Wistar's father and brother were both physicians. Rather than pursue a career in medicine, however, Wistar, at the age of twenty, headed to California during the 1849 gold rush and became a successful lawyer in San Francisco. Returning home to Philadelphia in 1857, he was admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in 1858.

After the outbreak of the Civil War, Wistar received a commission as a Colonel, raised nearly 1,000 volunteers for a new unit, and then led his men into battle. Wounded three times and with his right arm paralyzed, Wistar retired from the U. S. Army as a Brigadier General in 1864 and returned to Philadelphia where he began a long rehabilitation.

Wistar then made his fortune as president of the Pennsylvania Canal Company, which shipped coal for the Pennsylvania Railroad. Having no children, he and his wife Sarah devoted their time and money to civic causes. In his later years, Wistar served as an Inspector for the markerEastern State Penitentiary, President of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (1891-1895), and President of the American Philosophical Society (1902-1903).

In the early 1800s, Caspar Wistar had begun to collect dried, wax-injected, and preserved human specimens. By the 1880s this had expanded into a rich collection of anatomical specimens, and anthropological samples housed in the Wistar and Horner Museum at the University of Pennsylvania.
Exterior sketch of building
G. W. Hewitt's original architectural sketch for the Wistar Institute, 1894.
After making an initial gift towards the rehousing and refurbishing of the collection, Isaac Wistar offered a more far-reaching proposal: to fund The Wistar Institute of Anatomy and Biology as a research center to generate "new and original knowledge" and to preserve his great uncle's teaching collection. Founded in 1892, the Institute opened its new building in 1894, designed by noted Philadelphia architects George W. and William G. Hewitt, at the corner of 36th and Spruce streets.

In the early 1900s, The Wistar Institute began to conduct original research in the biological and medical sciences. Under the leadership of Drs. Milton Greenman and Henry Donaldson the Institute opened its doors to foreign scientists, a tradition maintained to the present day, and earned an international recognition as a training ground for young scientists and for the scientific journals published by the Wistar Press. In 1906, Institute researchers developed and bred the WISTARAT, the first standardized laboratory animal. In the decades that followed, Wistar Institute researchers participated in the development of vaccines to fight rubella (German measles), rabies, cytomegalovirus, and rotavirus.

Helen Dean King, Ph.D with Wistar rats
Helen Dean King with Wistar rats, the first standardized laboratory animal,...
In 1972 the National Institutes of Health, already devoting a major part of its staff and resources to cancer research, named the Wistar Institute a Basic Science Cancer Research Center, a distinction it holds to this day. The Institute also owned the Wistar Press, which produced five scientific journals for worldwide distribution.
sphenoid bone
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William Rush, anatomical model of the sphenoid bone, made of painted pine, circa...

In the years that followed, Wistar researchers expanded their studies in genetics and immunology. Wistar scientists were among the first to develop monoclonal antibodies, the protein molecules that can detect and destroy foreign invaders, including cancer cells. They also identified significant genes associated with breast, lung, and prostate cancers, and conducted research on the body's immune response to cancers and infectious agents, including HIV. The Institute also created a partnership with the Community College of Philadelphia for training laboratory staff with the sophisticated skills and expertise required for twenty-first century biological research.

Today, Institute researchers, working in more than thirty laboratories, continue to investigate cancers and viral and autoimmune diseases, from genetic and molecular biology viewpoints. Programs in Chemical Biology, Systems Biology, and Bioinformatics attract promising young scientists to pursue post-doctoral training in its laboratories. The Institute also houses a significant historical archives and the Wistar and Horner collection, which includes the anatomical models produced in the early 1800s for Caspar Wistar by America's first native-born sculptor, William Rush, whose statuary once graced of the Fairmount Water Works and other public buildings.
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