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A Wistar Weekend of Reflection
Darien Sutton
Wistar family on historic walking tour trace Dr. Caspar Wistar's footsteps

The Wistar Institute hosted a history-focused weekend of festivities celebrating the 300th anniversary of Caspar Wistar the Elder’s arrival from Germany to Philadelphia. This important anniversary drew a large contingent of Wistar family members and supporters to the Institute—many for the first time.

On September 15, nearly 100 Wistar descendants from across the U.S., Canada and the U.K., reflected on their shared heritage at a special reception and dinner held at the Institute. Guests viewed several artifact collections belonging to their ancestors, which were pulled from Wistar’s vault for this special night. On display were 18th and 19th century historical objects and ephemera–from Civil War weaponry, uniform adornments and Brigadier General Isaac J. Wistar’s general orders to letters, Continental currency and medieval anatomy books.

A very realistic “Thomas Jefferson” spoke about his friendship with Dr. Caspar Wistar, his scientific influence and their work together at the American Philosophical Society where they identified the Megalonyx jeffersonii, a fossil that belonged to a prehistoric ground sloth.

Wistar’s own Brian Ross, a HIV research assistant in the lab of Luis J. Montaner, D.V.M., D.Sc., donned the uniform of an American Civil War Union Solider and discussed Institute founder and Isaac’s Civil War experience, detailing battles he fought at Ball’s Bluff and Antietam, the weapons Isaac carried into war and his military commitment. 

Throughout the night, Wistar family member Christopher Turman presented a special genealogy program and encouraged descendants to trace their ancestry and fill in the gaps of their extensive family tree.

During the program, President & CEO Dr. Dario C. Altieri welcomed the family and emphasized the Institute’s commitment to carrying forward its pioneering legacy established by their ancestors with innovative cancer and infectious disease research taking place today. Dr. Altieri and all the presenters spoke about the Wistar family's deep connection to the Institute and the Institute’s unique place in history as well as today, where its current focus is as an engine of biomedical discovery.

The next morning, Rosalind Beiler, associate professor of history at the University of Central Florida, gave an informative and captivating lecture on Caspar Wistar the Elder. The lecture fittingly took place at the American Philosophical Society where Dr. Wistar (grandson of the Elder) served as fourth president of the Society after his good friend Thomas Jefferson.

After the lecture, Wistar descendants put their family history in action and enjoyed historic walking tours throughout the Philadelphia area. At Haverford College, guests learned the fascinating Treaty Elm story, in which William Penn and a Lenape Chief pledged a friendship treaty that guaranteed fairness, justice and peace to the Lenape Tribe. The elm tree eventually fell, but Wistar family ancestors—Bartholomew W. Wistar in 1830 and his grandson Caleb Cresson Wistar in 1915—would later return to plant new, descendant elm trees in place of those that fell or succumbed to Dutch Elm Disease.

A Philadelphia historical walking tour through Old City guided Wistar descendants in the footsteps of the late Dr. Wistar as he lived and worked. Led by historical markers (character actors playing real inhabitants in the 18th and 19th century), “Dolly Madison” talked about her life as it pertained to Dr. Wistar and times before and after the American Revolution.

Wistar family members also visited the Friend’s Meeting house built in 1804. Stops were made at the Betsy Ross House, Christ Church and the spot where Dr. Wistar’s house once stood, as well as the framework marking Benjamin Franklin’s House. The tour concluded with a lunch at the Morris house—once home to the Morris family, a Philadelphia family related to the Wistar family.

On Sunday, Samuel and Nicole Rhoads hosted a brunch for the family at their house in Germantown, (northwest) Philadelphia. The timely gathering was important because Wistar family could count themselves as descendants of the Quakers and Mennonite families that established the area. This final get-together was also an opportunity for family reflection and to pledge to stay in touch before they returned home. Some family went on to visit the historic Wyck House, one of Philadelphia’s oldest houses just blocks away. Caspar Wistar The Elder lived here with his wife Catherine, followed by their daughter and Wistar generations after. Wistar family members came closer to understanding their family’s past and the significant role they played in Philadelphia history starting in the 1700s.

A legacy that Wistar ancestors would be proud to realize: The Wistar Institute and its family are not only thriving, but celebrated centuries after their arrival.

Click here to view a photo album from the weekend's festivities.

You can also download the two PowerPoint presentations. Click here to view the PowerPoint about the treaty elm. Click here to view Rosalind Beiler's Caspar Wistar presentation.

You can also watch a special video about the history of The Wistar Institute below.