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Caspar Wistar M.D. is the grandson of the Caspar who built the glass business. His medical training was first rate: University of Edinburgh. The family could clearly afford the best. Following graduation, he returned to Philadelphia where, in 1789, he succeeded the esteemed Benjamin Rush as the chemistry professor at the College of Pennsylvania, known today as the University of Pennsylvania. Caspar Wistar also taught midwifery and, most importantly, anatomy. In fact, Doctor Caspar Wistar wrote the seminal American anatomical textbook, the two-volume A System of Anatomy, published in 1811 and 1814.

Caspar the M.D. was a highly respected member of numerous of the most learned societies in the humanities and sciences, and sat on the boards of numerous schools and hospitals. His expertise earned him worldwide renown, which helped him to recruit medical students from Europe to study in Pennsylvania. Doctor Wistar was among the earliest advocates of the benefits of vaccination against disease.

Thomas Nutall, the botanist, named the familiar vine Wistaria for Caspar. Watchful eyes studying the Lewis and Clark Expedition may recall the name Wistar, too. As Stephen Ambrose reminds us, “Dr. Caspar Wistar was the last of the Philadelphia savants” Meriwether Lewis consulted while preparing for his journey through the Louisiana Purchase territory. Thomas Jefferson, Doctor Wistar’s close friend, as revealed through Jefferson’s correspondence, recommended the doctor to Lewis. Ambrose cites Wistar as the “foremost authority on fossils in America.” Wistar and Meriwether Doctor Wistar, America's Premier Anatomist, and the First American DinosaurLewis discussed Megalonyx and the mastodons Jefferson and Lewis thought might still be stomping Midwestern prairie. Lewis sent Wistar specimens for identification.

Bill Bryson unearths a chance for Doctor Caspar to have had another claim to fame, however. In A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bryson relates the 1787 disinterment of a huge leg bone, likely a femur, from the banks of Woodbury Creek, in Gloucester County, New Jersey. American Scientist points out that the “distinguished physician and anatomist Caspar Wistar” presented a paper to the American Philosophical Society in which he described a very large thighbone, too large to belong to any of the animals indigenous to the region at that time. American Scientist further notes that Woodbury Creek is quite close to the marl pits at Haddonfield, New Jersey, where, “70 years later, the first associated remains of any dinosaur were excavated and described by Joseph Leidy as Hadrosaurus…we can be reasonably sure that the femur [described by Wistar] was the first discovery of an American dinosaur.”


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With Henry Wister, the family saga twists away from the stolid towards the curious. Henry Wister’s legacy is also the easiest to illustrate, so we’ll indulge.

Dr. Wistar's Balsam of Wild CherryBesides Richard, Caspar “Glass” Wistar had another brother, John. John’s line spelled the family name with a penultimate “e” rather than “a.” Henry descends from John, as does Sarah (Sally) Wister, the author of Sally Wister’s Journal, a chronicle of a young woman’s life during the British occupation and later evacuation of Philadelphia.

Circa 1840, Henry Wister developed a nostrum, Dr. Winstar’s Balsam of Wild Cherry, a heady mélange of cherry bark, alcohol and opiates. Sales were enormous. Dr. Winstar’s Balsam of Wild Cherry was on the market for over 100 years. Its bottles- made long after the Wistarburgh glassblowers last fired the furnace near the dawn of the Revolutionary War- remain highly prized by glass collectors.

The formula rights passed to various hands during the product’s market Dr. Wistar's Balsam of Wild Cherrytenure. In 1855, a spin-off hit the pharmacy shelves: Winstar’s Cough Lozenges. Dr. Winstar’s Balsam of Wild Cherry was allegedly the cure for “consumption,” or tuberculosis, and its popularity no doubt stemmed from the fact that up to 25% of the adult population during the middle of the nineteenth century through WWI was thought to have died of “consumption.”

Heavily advertised, Dr. Winstar’s Balsam of Wild Cherry was often featured in large placements in newspapers up and down the US eastern seaboard and throughout Canada. In its heyday, the Balsam was the best selling nostrum on the market.

 

“No Quackery!  No Deception!

The Physician may boast of his skill in many diseases, the Quack may puff his wonderful cures, but of all the remedies ever discovered for the diseases of the Pulmonary Organs, it is universally admitted that nothing has ever proved as successful as that unrivaled medicine-  Dr. Winstar’s Balsam of Wild Cherry, which has effected some of the most astonishing cures ever recorded in the history of Medicine.”

 

So ran a sample ad. At a buck a bottle, it was worth a shot, even if just for the buzz.


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Isaac Jones Wistar is the great nephew of Dr. Caspar Wistar the anatomist. Despite establishing an endowment to fund what became America’s first independent medical research facility, Isaac was not a man of medicine. He was almost everything but.

Isaac Jones Wistar

Isaac Jones Wistar

Seduced by the gold rush in 1849, Isaac made money mining after moving to San Francisco, where he studied law in addition to veins of ore. Between 1857 and 1861, Isaac returned to Pennsylvania, where he practiced law before the Supreme Court of Philadelphia. During this period, Isaac lead quite a varied life, working not only as an attorney, but also as a farmer, a trapper for Hudson’s Bay Company, and mountaineer. Later Isaac, like several of his ancestral Wistars, would become a noted advocate for prison reform.

As the Civil War flared in 1861, Isaac Wistar raised roughly 1000 volunteers for a unit to go to battle under his command. Wounded several times, he served with distinction in the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, at Gettysburg, and at Antietam. By 1864, he made Brigadier General, but soon retired from the military and returned to his home in Philadelphia, where he assumed the roll of vice president of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, and managed its coal shipping and canal divisions. Isaac prospered.

Isaac’s great uncle Caspar, the anatomist and teacher, developed an

Anatomical Model by William Rush for Caspar Wistar and the Wistar Horner Museum

Anatomical Model by William Rush

extensive collection of fossils, anatomical models and teaching aids, representing both human and animal forms. A core holding within the collection were the models made to spec for Caspar by William Rush, the founder of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and widely considered America’s first important native sculptor. William Rush became famous for his grand-scale public sculptures, and is remembered by military historians for the figurehead carvings featured on four of the US Navy’s first six frigates, but Rush also finished 21 large anatomical models for Caspar Winstar, using carved wood and papier-mache. Rush’s large anatomical structures, combined with an array of lesser models of varied provenance, formed the cornerstone of the first anatomical museum in the United States: the Wistar and Horner Museum.

William Horner, the physician appointed by Doctor Wistar to curate the early phase of the collection, added considerably to its holdings. When Joseph Leidy, the respected parasitologist and paleontologist, took over for Horner, he further developed the anatomical museum to include groundbreaking dinosaur specimens. The holdings grew so large, and were so well used, the University of Pennsylvania had trouble budgeting for its maintenance.

The Wistar Institute

Drawing for the Wistar Institute in 1894

Isaac Jones Wistar saved the collection. His endowment created the Wistar Institute of Anatomy and Biology. The University of Pennsylvania transferred the holdings of the Wistar and Horner collection to the Institute in 1894.

Within a decade, the Wistar Institute became an important center for medical research. Its contributions to science include the eponymous Wistar Rat, the world’s first standardized lab animal, from which the Institute estimates that half of all today’s lab rats descend. The Wistar Institute developed vaccines against rubella and rabies (a good idea, with all those rats around) and is now considered among the world’s premier cancer research facilities.


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“Father, help me,” cried Elizabeth Kelly. “Goodwife Ayres is upon me! She chokes me, she kneels on my belly, she will break my bowels, she pinches me! Goodwife Ayres torments me, she pricks me with pins, she will kill me! Get the broad axe and cut off her head,” the girl begged her father, who could do little more than stand by, and hear his daughter’s last gasp, “Goodwife Ayres chokes me.”
hartford witch trial, goodwife ayers, elizabeth kelly, connecticut history

Hartford Witch Trails

Familiar as this melodrama might sound to students of the 1692 Salem Witch Trials, neither the afflicted girl, Elizabeth Kelly, nor the alleged witch, Goodwife Ayers, lived in Massachusetts, and Salem judges such as Samuel Sewall would not hear the infamous Witch Trials for another 31 years.

Contrary to common assumption, New England’s first “witch” execution wasn’t in Salem. Alice Young resided in Hartford, Connecticut. She was hanged in 1647. Over the next 50 years, ten more suspected witches would meet their end in Connecticut. During 1662, nine were tried as witches. Four were convicted. Since its very first Legal Code, Connecticut listed witchcraft as a capital offense. Betraying a deep and true fear of witches, items two and five below, from the original Connecticut Blue Laws, relate to witchcraft, and stipulate the death penalty:

2. If any man or woman bee a Witch that is hath or consulteth with a familiar spirritt they shall bee put to death Exodus 22 18 Levit 20 27 Deut 18 10 11

 5. If any person shall slay another through guile either by poisonings or other such Devellish practice hee shall bee put to death Exo 21 14

 Circumstances surrounding Elizabeth Kelly’s accusation of Goodwife Ayers render her case quite different from any other in the colonies. Eight-year-old Elizabeth, the victim of the alleged witchery, was not only delusional, she was clearly physically ill—she died within days of the onset of her pain.

In 1893, a writer for JAMA suggested that Elizabeth Kelly suffered from “some form of bronchial pneumonia attended with delirium.” Elizabeth’s parents, however, as well as other people of Hartford, wanted to know exactly what killed the girl. Everyone in town was aware that Elizabeth, in pain for days, screamed about how Goodwife Ayers was hurting her. Walter Woodward claims that Hartford also knew that Goodwife Ayres enjoyed “spreading stories of encounters with the devil.”

Hartford was ready to believe that Goodwife Ayers was indeed a witch, but interested people were prudent enough to call for an expert opinion- not from, as typically, clergy or a Judge, but from a respected, if unskilled, local

hartford with trial, autopsy of elizabeth kelly, first autopsy in america

America's First Autopsy

physician, Bray Rossiter. Mr. Rossiter lived in Guilford, Connecticut, and 20-mile travel from Hartford. It took Bray Rossiter several days to arrive at the gravesite, at which he performed the first recorded autopsy in Connecticut; JAMA claims that Rossiter performed the first postmortem in America.

Bray Rossiter tackled the necropsy with the assistance of the schoolmaster, William Pitkin. At least six others witnessed the procedure.

“All these six particulars underwritten I judge preternatural,” writes Rossiter. “Upon the opening of John Kelly’s child at the grave I observed:

 1.  The whole body, the muscular parts, nerves and joints were all pliable without stiffness or contraction, the gullet only excepted. Experience of dead bodies renders such symptoms unusual.

2.  From the costall ribs to the bottom of the belly in the whole latitude of the womb, both the scarf skin and the whole skin with the enveloping or covering flesh had a deep blue tincture, when the inward part thereof was fresh, and the bowels under it in true order, without any discoverable pecaney to cause such an effort or symptom.

3.  No quantity or appearance of blood was in either venter or cavity as belly or breast, but in the throat only at the very swallow where was a large quantity as that part could well contain, both fresh and fluid no way congealed or clodded as it comes from a vein opened, that I stroked it out with my finger as water.

4.  There was the appearance of pure fresh blood in the backside of the arm, affecting the skin as blood itself, without bruising or congealing.

5.  The bladder of gall was all broken and curded, without any tincture in the adjacent parts.

6.  The gullet or swallow was contracted like a hard fish bone that hardly a large pease could be forced through.

The doctor clearly hadn’t studied many cadavers. The symptoms he describes are common to corpses several days old. He may have been examining a body but, along with the rest of Hartford, Rossiter was hunting for a witch. Unlike inquisitors past and future, Rossiter studied the victim for the effects of the witch, rather than the witch herself, even though Goodwife Ayers was present for at least part of the inquest.

hartford witch trial in connecticut, goodwife ayers, sale witch trials

Hell Broke Loose in Hartford

Bray Rossiter’s medical report did not commit him- in writing- to the conclusion that Goodwife Ayers was a witch. Confronted by symptoms and characteristics unfamiliar to his limited medical knowledge, Rossiter swore that Elizabeth Kelly suffered unnatural harm. Hartford knew exactly what his report said between its lines: his autopsy proved Goodwife Ayers was a witch. A man of science corroborated, and tapped, one of the deepest Puritan fears. All Hell was breaking loose in Hartford.

Rossiter’s autopsy unleashed panic in Hartford. Over the next eight months, Hartford tried eight witches. The Hartford Witch Trials predate the Salem Witch Trials by three decades.

Goodwife Ayers and her husband abandoned their young son, skipped town, and avoided a sure death sentence from acting Hartford authorities.

Recommended Sources:

Hall, David D. Witch-Hunting in Seventeenth Century New England

“The First Postmortem Recorded In The Country.” JAMA 21:661-662. October 28, 1893.

St. George, Robert Blair. Conversing By Signs: Poetics of Implication in Colonial New England Culture.

Woodward, Walter. “New England’s Other Witch Hunt: the Hartford Witch-Hunt of the 1660’s and Changing Patterns in Witchcraft Prosecution.” Magazine of History 17:4; July 2003.


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When he wasn’t busy giving speeches celebrating the opening of the Erie Canal, classifying fish, or founding colleges, polymath Samuel Mitchell, a senator from New York, spent time in the field in which he received University training: medicine.

Samuel Mitchell was graduated from Scotland’s prestigious University of Edinburgh. Among virtually innumerable pursuits, he saw patients, at least early in his career, but his lasting recognition as a man of medicine has more to do with research than practice, as attested by his contributions to the development of anesthesiology, or his founding of The Medical Repository, the first medical journal first published in the United States.

Samuel Latham MitchellMitchell was routinely consulted on a wide range of matters of science. The groundbreaking pamphlet, The Surprising Case of Rachel Baker, Who Prays and Preaches in her Sleep, finds the eminent Samuel Mitchell on a panel of five physicians called as informal expert witnesses to Baker’s somnambulist sermons.

Although the stenographer Mais’ role in writing the book outweighed that of Mitchell, who contributed the introduction, the publication of Baker’s performance positions Mitchell as a bit player in a groundbreaking, and trendsetting, piece of work. Mitchell’s primary role was to lend credence to the recording of the events, and only secondarily, if appropriate, reflect upon the substance of the events, or contribute medical diagnosis.

That being said, Mitchell, who never wasted an opportunity to expound- and usually at some length- wrote an introduction to the book that “evinced psychological views of original combination,” per the New York Journal of Medicine, and drew parallels between Baker’s symptoms and those of one suffering from epilepsy or hysteria. He concluded that Baker’s state of consciousness was between waking and sleep.

Mitchell studied neither somnambulism nor multiple personality disorder after observing Baker in 1814. As the century rolled on, however, somnambulism, more specifically in the context of the trance speakers and writers, would come to play a substantial role in popular culture, science and, perhaps most importantly, the women’s movement and other aspects of political reform. The psychology of multiple personality disorder continues to evolve.

The Surprising Case of Rachel Baker, Who Prays and Preaches in her Sleep is important as an early contribution to both fields.

See also A Chaos of Knowledge, Samuel Latham Mitchell

 

For further reading:

Mais, Charles and Samuel Mitchill. The Surprising Case Of Rachel Baker, Who Prays And Preaches In Her Sleep: With Specimens Of Her Extraordinary Performances Taken Down Accurately In Short Hand At The Time …: The Whole Authenticated By The Most Respectable Testimony Of Living Witnesses.

 

Rieber, Robert W. The Bifurcation of the Self: the History and Theory of Disassociation and its Disorders.

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