Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Philadelphia’ Category

History often tangles us up in battles, polemics and gods. Not so the story of the Wistar family, from their colonial Philadelphia and West New Jersey businesses through the DNA passed today between lab rats. Although the family lacks its former “household name” status, the Wistars remain among the most celebrated families to have called the middle colonies and Mid-Atlantic States home. Wistar genealogy and social circles spin you through names like Franklin, Bache, Trist, and Jefferson, to name but a few. Family members built fortunes though business, rose to international prominence for medical and scientific achievements, received accolades for their philanthropy, chaired learned societies, ascended the ranks of Freemasonry and exposed social injustice, becoming particularly vocal during abolition and prison reform debates.

 

Caspar Wistar and America‘s First Profitable Glass Factory

 

glass factory

A Furnace at the Glass Factory

Caspar was the first Wistar to emigrate from Germany to America. He arrived in 1717, virtually broke, with nine pence and a rifle, and settled in the area between Berks County and Philadelphia. Caspar, always industrious, made soap, and bootstrapped and brokered real estate deals to save enough to purchase a furnace and, next, a forge in Berks County. With the forge, Caspar built a very profitable business, manufacturing high quality brass buttons, a staple of period apparel.

Wistarburgh GlassThe rising young businessman joined the Society of Friends and married wisely, wedding a wealthy Quaker, Catherine Jansen. Associating with the Society of Friends would prove opportune, especially during the middle years of operations at the Wistar Glass Works in Wistarburgh, in Salem County, New Jersey. At Wistarburgh, Caspar built the very first glass factory in America to achieve sustained profitability.

Caspar opened a retail store on Market Street in Philadelphia, quite close to the home of Ben Franklin, with whom he became good friends. Caspar died one of the leading merchants and wealthiest men in the middle colonies, thanks to the button and brass works, sagacious real estate speculation, the landmark Wistarburgh glass business, and family operated retail outlets in New Jersey and New York. Caspar’s brother, Richard Wistar, ran the New York store.

Caspar Wistar, Wistarburgh, Ben Franklin

Ben Franklin's Electrostatic Generator

Wistarburgh pane glass and bottles were common in homes and businesses throughout the middle colonies. Wistar glass also enjoys the historic and scientific honor of having been made to specification for Benjamin Franklin, who incorporated Wistar glass in a variety of devices he designed for his experiments in electricity. Franklin tested his first lightning rod at Caspar Wistar’s house.

More on the Wistarburgh Glass Works


Share/Bookmark

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

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.


Share/Bookmark

Read Full Post »

Accomplished as the family members have been, a discussion of the Wistars is incomplete unless one can appreciate the tangle of relationships the family has forged since coming to America.

Sarah Franklin Bache

Catherine Wistar Bache, for example, represents multiple points of social and genealogical convergence. Take a few steps back from Catherine- we start at Benjamin Franklin. Ben had a daughter, Sarah. Sarah married Richard Bache who, upon Franklin’s removal, became the nation’s second Postmaster General. Sarah Franklin and Richard Bache had a son, Dr. William Bache. He was Ben Franklin’s grandson.

Franklin’s grandson married Catherine Wistar, whose brother was Dr. Caspar Wistar, the anatomist, and whose grandfather was the Caspar Wistar who built the Wistarburgh Glass business. Put another way, Ben and Caspar “Glass” Wistar, friends and neighbors, had grandchildren who married one another.

The year after they were married, yellow fever ravaged Philadelphia. William Bache’s brother, Benjamin, died. The Baches, Wistars and Franklins were all friends with Thomas Jefferson and, at his urging, Dr. William Bache and Catherine Wistar Bache moved to Monticello, where they lived for several months, before moving into a new house in Franklin, Virginia.

Their farm did not produce well enough to support the family. They had financial difficulties. William Bache asked President Jefferson for a government appointment, which he received in 1802. He cared for sick American seamen in New Orleans. Catherine Wistar Bache and their children – among them Benjamin Franklin Bache- returned to Philadelphia. The following year, William Bache became Surveyor of the Port of Philadelphia, where the family reunited.

As Milton Rubicam observes, the “career of the Wistars and Wisters has been a continuous adventure, a story of heroic men and gracious ladies, of philanthropists and scholars, of soldiers and authors, and of men and women with strong convictions of duty to their country and their community.” We have only rolled some highlight reels here.

owen wister the virginian

Map for The Virginian, by Owen Wister

We could just as easily have looked at Owen Wister, the author of The Virginian and who, some have argued, is the father of the American Western and who, said a NY Times critic, may have written “the American novel.” Owen Wister’s mother was Sarah Kemble, the daughter of the celebrated actress Fanny Kemble. At Harvard, Owen secured an interesting class reunion by becoming friends with Theodore Roosevelt, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Henry Cabot Lodge.


Share/Bookmark

Read Full Post »