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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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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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