A History of the Medical Department of the University of Pennsylvania/Chapter XI


A Faculty of Natural Sciences organized by the Board of Trustees—Death of Dr. Wistar—Sketch of his life and services to the University—Anatomical Museum—Dr. Dorsey succeeds Dr. Wistar—Death of Dr. Dorsey—Sketch of his life—Transfer of Dr. Physick to the Chair of Anatomy —Election of Dr. Gibson to the Chair of Surgery—Dr. Horner appointed Adjunct Professor of Anatomy.

When Dr. Barton left the Chair of Materia Medica in 1813, the associated branches of Botany and Natural History were without an exponent. This was not without attention on the part of the Board of Trustees, and on October 4, 1816, we are informed by the Minutes that the Board proceeded to the consideration of the plan for establishing a Faculty of Natural Sciences, and passed the following resolutions:—

“That a Faculty, denominated the Faculty of Natural Science, be instituted in this University. The said Faculty shall at present consist of the following Professorships, reserving to the Trustees the power to combine or subdivide the Professorships as may hereafter be found expedient, provided no such alteration take place during a course of lectures:—

“1. A Professorship of Botany.

“2. A Professorship of Natural History, including Geology and Zoology.

“3. A Professorship of Mineralogy and Chemistry, applied to Agriculture and the Arts.

“That the Professorship of Natural Philosophy be detached from the Medical Department, and be connected with, and form a part of, the Faculty of Natural Science.

“That the Professorship of Botany and Natural History, as part of the Medical Faculty, shall be and is hereby abolished.”

At a subsequent meeting it was resolved that a Professorship of Comparative Anatomy be added to those already established in the Faculty of Natural Science.

On Dec. 29th the following elections took place:—

Dr. William P. C. Barton was appointed Professor of Botany; Dr. Charles Caldwell, Professor of Natural History; Dr. Thomas Cooper, Professor of Mineralogy and Chemistry; and Dr. Thomas T. Hewson, Professor of Comparative Anatomy.

At the same time that this movement was made in behalf of the Natural Sciences, the subject of a Botanical Garden was taken up by the University. In 1815 it was brought before the Trustees in connection with a successful effort to interest the Legislature. The following action was taken Nov. 17:—

“On Motion, the Board agreed to the following: Whereas, the Legislature of Pennsylvania, by their act passed the 19th of March, 1807, granted the Trustees of the Institution, out of the monies due to the State, the sum of Three Thousand Dollars for the purpose of enabling them to establish a Garden for the improvement of the Science of Botany; Resolved, that a Committee be appointed to consider and report the best method of carrying the said intention of the Legislature into effect.”

In 1816 this Committee reported, that in aid of the fund in possession of the University, “they have prepared subscription papers for circulation under direction of the Board.” To this the Medical Faculty liberally responded.[1] The enterprise appears to have so far succeeded as to induce the Trustees, in 1817, to purchase forty-two acres of ground in Penn Township, near the canal road, for the sum of eight thousand dollars.

In the spring of 1818, the Professor of Botany, Dr. W. P. C. Barton, was permitted to use the yard attached to the University building in Ninth Street, for the purposes of a Botanic Garden. Upon the resignation of Dr. Barton no further idea was entertained of maintaining a Botanic Garden, and the land near the city was soon after sold by the University.

The year 1818 was marked by the death of Dr. Wistar. Dr. Caspar Wistar was of German origin. His paternal grandfather came from Hilsbach, near Heidelberg, in the Lower Palatinate, and at an early period settled in Pennsylvania. His parents belonged to the Society of Friends. He was born in the city of Philadelphia, Sept. 13, 1761, and received a classical education—indeed, he acquired so much familiarity with the Latin language as to be able readily to express himself in it. We are told by his biographer, Chief Justice Tilghman, that his determination to study medicine was settled by an event which aroused his benevolent impulses. “This event was the battle of Germantown, in 1777. His religious principles kept him out of the battle, but his humanity led him to seek the wounded soldier, and he was active in assisting those who were administering relief. His benevolent heart was affected by their sufferings, and so deeply was he struck with the happy effects of the medical art, that he determined to devote his life to a profession formed to alleviate the miseries of mankind.”

He studied medicine with Dr. Redman, and, while a student, was further benefited by the instruction of Dr. John Jones, then practising surgery in Philadelphia.[2] He graduated as Bachelor of Medicine in 1782, at the University. As it is stated that he commenced his studies in 1777, he must have been one of the last pupils of the College, and among the first of the University; and it is not to be wondered at, therefore, that he should so ardently desire, and so actively exert himself to bring about their union in after times.

The statement has been made by Judge Tilghman, and repeated by other biographers, that the Faculty of Medicine, as then constituted, “were not all of one theory, and each Professor examined with an eye to his own system; of this Wistar was aware, and had the address to answer each to his entire satisfaction, in his own way.” The inference from this is that he had especially comprehended the teaching of the several professors, and had mastered their modes of thought and expression. At the time referred to, the doctrines of Boerhaave and of Cullen had each their advocates in the Faculty.

In 1783 Dr. Wistar went to Europe, and in June, 1786, was graduated Doctor of Medicine in the University of Edinburgh; his inaugural essay, “De Animo Demisso,” being dedicated to Franklin and Dr. Cullen. While pursuing his studies in Edinburgh, he was elected President of the Royal Medical Society, a tribute justly to be appreciated, if it be recollected that the honor was conferred on an American student when the feelings incident to the Revolutionary struggle had hardly had time to be obliterated. Of the origin of this Society we have the account by Dr. Fothergill. “Several students at that time (1734), the foremost in application and knowledge, fired by the example of their masters, who had nothing more at heart than the improvement of those who committed themselves to their tuition, formed a Society, for their mutual instruction and advancement in their studies. Every student of a certain standing, who distinguished himself by his diligence, capacity, and conduct was initiated in this little assembly. Here the opinions of the ancients, of their contemporaries—nay, the doctrines of their masters—were frequently discussed, and two of the members were always charged with the task of providing instruction and entertainment for the next meeting of the Society.”[3] When Dr. Wistar was an active member he had, as associates, men who afterwards became prominent. In speaking of the elevation of Dr. Wistar to the dignity of President, Dr. Chapman informs us that “it was in this Society that he acquired great reputation as a public speaker, so much so that even in my time, nearly twenty years afterwards, the debates conducted by Wistar, Sir James McIntosh, Beddoes, and Emmet, of New York, were frequently spoken of by older members as very uncommon specimens of eloquence and ability.”[4]

The year following his graduation Dr. Wistar returned to Philadelphia, a candidate for public confidence. In 1789, he became a trustee of the College of Philadelphia, which had just been resuscitated by the Legislature, and very soon accepted the chair of Chemistry, as is stated by his biographer, Judge Tilghman, in “order to preserve an influence, to be exerted at the proper season, in effecting that arrangement which concentrated the talents of the city upon a single object, and gave just eclat to the labors of the distinguished men who constituted the Medical Faculty of the University.”

From the time that Dr. Wistar assumed the duties of Adjunct Professor of Anatomy, in 1792, he devoted his whole energy and the resources of his well-instructed mind to maintain that important branch—the foundation of all medical knowledge—on the highest level of efficiency; and not only did he sustain himself without detriment to his reputation in contrast with the fair fame of Shippen, but from year to year surpassed himself. To quote the language of a biographer, “as his class increased in numbers, as was annually the case, and he perceived that he was operating on a wider scale, Dr. Wistar felt the responsibilities of his station augmented. He did not, as many are known to do, hold himself privileged to relax into indolence and the enjoyment of comparative ease, because his fame was established and his fortune made. He recognized in that fame, which drew yearly around him a greater crowd of pupils, nothing but an obligation to maintain and augment it by higher exertions and a more efficient discharge of duty.”

“To the elevation, as a teacher, he ultimately attained, his ascent was gradual, not rapid. It was the result of a lifetime of persevering labor, his achievements in the last surpassing those of the preceding year. Had he lived to complete the course of lectures, in the midst of which it was the pleasure of Heaven to terminate his career, it would have been decidedly the most excellent he ever delivered.”[5]

With respect to the mode of instruction adopted by Dr. Wistar at the time he was in full occupation of the chair of Anatomy, the statement of Dr. Horner, in a letter to Judge Tilghman, dated Feb. 1st, 1818, is valuable, in consequence of having come from one so intimately associated with him. It is in the following words: “In reviewing the several particulars of his course of instruction, it is difficult to say in what part his chief merit consisted; he undertook everything with so much zeal, and such a conscientious desire to benefit those who came to be instructed by him, that he seldom failed of giving the most complete satisfaction. There were, however some parts of his course peculiar to himself. These were the addition of models on a very large scale to illustrate small parts of the human structure; and the division of the general class into a number of sub classes, each of which he supplied with a box of bones, in order that they might become thoroughly acquainted with the human skeleton, a subject which is acknowledged by all to be at the very foundation of Anatomical Knowledge. The idea of the former mode of instruction was acted on for the first time about fifteen years ago. It commenced with a model of wax, representing the bones of the Human Ear. This was followed by a wax model of the Temporal Bone, about eighteen inches in diameter; and one of the External Ear. The benefit attending this mode of instruction became now so obvious that a regular system of modelling was undertaken, and no year since has been passed over without the addition of some such article to his Anatomical Museum.”

The large-sized wooden models of the sphenoid, palate, and ethmoidal bones, the temporal bone, and the labyrinth of the ear, as well as of the brain in sections, from which the successive classes of students to the present day, in connection with the demonstrations of subsequent professors, have benefited, were most carefully prepared under the direction of Professor Wistar by Mr. Rush, the most celebrated carver of his time in Philadelphia.

In speaking of this mode of instruction, Dr. Dorsey, in a letter to Judge Tilghman, says, “that, finding it impossible to demonstrate to several hundred pupils at once the minute structure of the various organs, he contrived models on a very large scale, to illustrate these difficult subjects, and though not the first who had resorted to this method in teaching anatomy, he has more than the honor of invention by carrying the plan very completely into effect. Others had used it in one or two instances; Wistar applied it to every difficult piece of anatomical structure, and in his Museum of Models he has bequeathed a rich treasure to his successors in the Anatomical chair. No one could fail to become an anatomist who diligently attended his lectures.”

The preparations made to illustrate the several portions of the body, including injections of the several organs, corroded specimens and wet preparations constituted the anatomical museum of Dr. Wistar, which, upon his decease, was presented to the University by his relict.[6] It was for years styled the Wistar Museum; but, vastly augmented as it became by the indefatigable exertions of Dr. Horner, and further enriched by the skill and industry of the present Professor of Anatomy, Dr. Leidy, as well as by other contributors, it may safely be regarded as unsurpassed in this country as a collection for teaching purposes.[7]

Dr. Wistar published a work on Anatomy in 1811;[8] and there is no doubt, from the description therein given, “of his having first observed and described the posterior portion of the Ethmoid Bone in its most perfect state, viz., with the triangular bones attached to it.” Of this discovery the distinguished anatomist Von Soemmering, of Munich, wrote thus to Dr. Wistar, Jan. 17, 1819: “The neat specimens of Ossa Sphe-noideum and Ethnoideum are invaluable additions to my Anatomical Collection, having never seen them myself in so perfect a state. I shall now be very attentive to examine these processes of the Ethmoid Bone in children of two years of age, being fully persuaded M. Bertin had never met with them of so considerable size, nor of such a peculiar structure.”[9]

As a teacher Dr. Wistar “brought to the Anatomical Theatre his deep and various learning, his habitual feelings, and even something of his colloquial vivacity. Although he was strikingly fluent and truly learned, still, there was something in his eloquence peculiarly his own. His was the eloquence of sentiment rather than of manner; and his persuasiveness owed almost as much to his disposition as to the great importance of the truths that he unfolded.”

“He seemed to have identified Anatomy with his common thoughts, and the language in which he expressed himself seemed like the appropriate expressions of his familiar conversation.”[10]

The specialty which Dr. Wistar cultivated with so much success did not preclude attention to other branches of science. His reputation rests doubtless upon his success as a writer and teacher of Anatomy, but, as has been stated, he commenced his professional career as a teacher of Chemistry, with which branch he had acquired considerable familiarity when pursuing his studies abroad. He was also versed in Botany and Mineralogy, and was so much interested in the discovery of organic remains on this continent, then first attracting the attention of the scientific world, as to institute steps to secure their preservation. The prosecution of this most laudable enterprise, in which so much reputation has been gained of late years, was arrested by his death.

The scientific reputation of Dr. Wistar, as well as the extended information possessed by him, induced his associates in the Philosophical Society to elect him its President in 1815, as the successor of Jefferson. Prior to this he had served the Society in the capacity of Vice-President, to which position he had been chosen in 1795. He was in the habit of receiving his friends and scientific strangers at his house on Sunday evenings. Upon his death a social circle was formed among the members of the Philosophical Society, to which was given the name of Wistar Parties. The meetings were held on Saturday evenings, and continued until within a few years.

Dr. Wistar died on the 22d of January, 1818, before the conclusion of his course, at the age of fifty-eight years, in the maturity of his intellectual force, and at the highest point in his profession to which earthly ambition can aspire. “Beloved, respected, honored by all who knew him, his virtue had secured him the affections of his friends, his talents and industry the respect and esteem of the community in which he lived.”[11]

The Chair of Anatomy, thus suddenly vacated, was filled May 5, 1818, by the election of Dr. John Syng Dorsey, who had supplied the void in the session occasioned by the untoward event of Dr. Wistar’s death.

On July 7, 1818, Dr. Coxe was transferred from the Professorship of Chemistry to that of Materia Medica. At this time the title of the Chair was changed in accordance with the action of the Board of Trustees, to wit: “Resolved, that the Professor of Materia Medica be henceforth styled Professor of Materia Medica and Pharmacy, and that teaching the Principles of the Pharmaceutic Art shall be a part of his duties.”[12]

The Professorship of Chemistry, vacated by the transfer of Dr. Coxe, was conferred, Sept. 18, 1818, on Dr. Robert Hare.

At the commencement of the course in 1818, another heavy misfortune befell the University in the death of Dr. Dorsey. This event occurred on the 10th of November.

Dr. John Syng Dorsey was a native of Philadelphia, and was born in 1783. He was educated at the Friends’ Academy, and at the early age of fifteen years commenced the study of Medicine with his uncle, Dr. Physick. At the age of nineteen he was admitted to the Doctorate at the Commencement of 1802; the Trustees, upon application to them, having dispensed with the rule which prohibited the conferring of the degree of M. D. on any one who had not attained the age of twenty-one years. His thesis was upon “The Powers of the Gastric Juice as a Solvent for Urinary Calculi.” It was published in the series of Theses edited by Dr. Caldwell.

In 1803 Dr. Dorsey went to Europe, and after spending a year improving himself in medicine, and especially in surgery, returned to his native city in 1804. In 1807 he was chosen Adjunct to his uncle in the Chair of Surgery, and in that position continued until the decease of Dr. Barton, in 1815, when he was elected to the Professorship of Materia Medica. In this position he remained until the spring of 1818, when, by the death of Dr. Wistar, the Chair of Anatomy was left without an occupant. For this position he was well adapted by education and experience, and was elected to it with universal approbation.

At the time this new mark of confidence of the honorable Board of Trustees was conferred, sanctioned by the medical public, Dr. Dorsey was thirty-five years of age, and exhibited all the enthusiasm of a zealous, rightly inspired, ambitious candidate for reputation in the field of enterprise before him. The course was opened, and on the 2d of November he delivered his Introductory Lecture, which, from the portions published, was full of correct sentiments and elevated thought. It was the last delivered by him. In its preparation the seeds of disease were laid which soon terminated his mortal career.[13] “On the evening of the same day that he pronounced his Introductory Lecture, and while the praises of it still resounded, he was attacked with a fever of such vehemence that in one short week it closed his existence, leaving us only his enviable name and his inestimable example.”[14]

While performing the duties of the Chair of Materia Medica, Dr. Dorsey published a syllabus of his lectures; but previously to this he had given to the public his “Elements of Surgery,” which appeared in 1813. This work may be regarded as a faithful exponent of the surgery of the day, as it was taught by Dr. Physick, of whose opinions and mode of practice it was the record; and as it was practised by the author himself, whose position as a surgeon of the Pennsylvania Hospital gave him great opportunities for the acquisition of skill and experience. In that institution he tied the internal iliac artery, the first time the operation was performed in this country. Dr. Dorsey was well versed in the literature of European Surgery, and familiar with its condition from personal observation.

The Chair of Anatomy being a second time within the year deprived suddenly of its incumbent, its duties were temporarily performed by Dr. Physick, who was assisted in meeting the additional responsibilities thus thrown upon him by the anatomical skill and dexterity of Dr. Horner. In the following year Dr. Physick was prevailed upon to resign the Professorship of Surgery and accept that of Anatomy, to which he was elected, July 13th, 1819.

The Chair of Surgery was filled, Sept. 7th, 1819, by the election of Dr. William Gibson, of Baltimore, who at the time was Professor of Surgery in the University of Maryland, and enjoyed a high reputation as a practitioner and teacher; and in 1820, Dr. William E. Horner was appointed Adjunct Professor of Anatomy.

  1. From a subscription paper which has turned up in the Philosophical Society, it appears the Medical Faculty subscribed six hundred dollars.
  2. Dr. John Jones was the grandson of Dr. Edward Jones, and great grandson of Dr. Wynne. To both of these physicians allusion has been made when speaking of those who emigrated to Pennsylvania with William Penn in 1682. Dr. John Jones was by birth a citizen of New York, and there attained to such eminence as to be appointed to the Professorship of Surgery in King’s College in 1768. About the year 1780 he removed to Philadelphia, and became one of the Physicians of the Pennsylvania Hospital. His regard for Dr. Wistar induced him to exert his influence in bringing the Doctor prominently before the public when yet a young man, and it is reported that when prepared to perform an operation, he insisted on Dr. Wistar taking the knife from him and executing it. Dr. Jones performed the first operation of lithotomy in New York. The Life of Dr. Jones was written by Dr. James Mease, and appended to an edition of the surgical works of that author printed in 1795.
  3. Essay on the character of the late Alexander Russell, M. D., Fothergill’s Works.
  4. MS. letter to Judge Tilghman, among the papers collected by him for the Life of Wistar, in possession of the author.
  5. Eulogium on Caspar Wistar, M. D., Professor of Anatomy, by Charles Caldwell, M. D., before the Philadelphia Medical Society, 1818.
  6. On the reception of this gift the following resolution was passed: “That the Anatomical Museum presented to the Trustees for the use of the Medical School by the family of the late Professor of Anatomy, Dr. Caspar Wistar, be styled the Wistar Museum.”
  7. The Museum at present contains, in addition to what has been stated, a large collection of materials for illustrating the Chair of Practice, procured by Dr. Wood in Europe, when first assuming its duties, and subsequently augmented by him; also the Materia Medica collection, and the materials pertaining to all the demonstrative branches. There are also in it some curious wax models by Dr. Chovet, donated by the Pennsylvania Hospital. Dr. Chovet was a French physician, who taught Anatomy to private classes as early as 1775.
  8. System of Anatomy.
  9. Letter in Tilghman’s papers for the Life of Dr. Wistar.
  10. Dr. Caldwell’s Eulogium.
  11. Memoir of Dr. Caspar Wistar by Caspar Morris, M. D.; Lives of Eminent Physicians and Surgeons, &c., edited by Samuel D. Gross, M. D., &c. We would refer to this excellent memoir for a true portraiture of the character and moral qualities of this distinguished Professor.
  12. The change of title was published at the time of the annunciation of the lectures of 1819. It was probably made with reference to the granting of Degrees in Pharmacy, although it was only the recurrence to the old title of the Chair. See ante, p. 93.
  13. It is stated that while engaged in the preparation of this lecture, late at night, towards the close of October, his fire went out, and without heeding the circumstance he continued his occupation, retiring thoroughly chilled. To this he attributed his sickness.
  14. Professor Chapman’s Eulogium, delivered before the Medical Class of the University, 1st of March, 1819. Philadelphia Journal of Medical and Physical Sciences, vol. 1st.

    A very interesting Memoir of Dr. Dorsey has been written by Dr. Samuel D. Gross, Professor of Surgery in Jefferson Medical College, and published in his “Lives of Eminent American Physicians and Surgeons of the Nineteenth Century.” Another memoir was published by the Rev. Dr. Janeway.