Wistar & Horner Museum

The Founders

Caspar Wistar

Caspar Wistar (1761-1818)
Painting by Bass Otis (1817)

The Museum was established in the early 19th Century by Caspar Wistar. Wistar earned his Bachelor of Medicine in 1782 from the Univerisity of Pennsylvania, and then continued his medical education at the University of Edinburgh, earning his MD in 1786. Upon his return to Philadelphia, he taught chemistry and other medical subjects from 1789 until 1792. At the time, the institution was named the College of Philadelphia. When the college united with the medical department of the University of Pennsylvania, he served as an adjunct professor of anatomy, midwifery, and surgery until 1808. In 1808 he chaired the Department of Anatomy until his death ten years later.

Previous Penn & Slavery Project research conducted by Caitlin Doolittle uncovered records suggesting Wistar held enslaved people during his life. 


William Horner

William Edmonds Horner, 1846

Shortly before his death, Wistar appointed William Edmonds Horner, as curator of his collection. Horner studied medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, earned his degree in 1814. He moved to Canada and served as a surgeon's mate for two years, but returned to Philadelphia and worked for the university. He served as a dissector for Wistar and held many positions in the Department of Anatomy including, Demonstrator, Adjunct Professor, and eventually Professor. He was a Dean of the Medical Faculty when Wistar appointed him as the museum's curator. Under Horner and his assistant Joseph Leidy, the collection developed to its largest extent. 


The Museum

The Horner & Wistar collection was full of wet and dry human samples. This was a major draw for medical students at a time when hands-on anatomical training was quickly becoming a staple of medical education. The collection played a major role in building the University's nineteenth-century reputation. Catalogs of the museum contain lists of 'specimens' or 'preparations;' in other words when a human being became a dead body, that body was claimed as a cadaver, dissected, injected with preservatives, dried, brined, jarred then wired or mounted. 

The museum records contain catalogs, acquisition lists, and preparing lists. There are many instances where the specimens were described as 'negro,' black,' or 'African.' In 1850, there were about 500 items listed as part of the Museum. Not all of these are human specimens. A significant portion is made up of animal, insect, and plant specimens or models and objects like paintings and drawings, though the catalog is not organized separating animal from human anatomical specimens.

Of the human specimens, 23 are labeled as “negro,” “black,” or “African.” Of the 25 different categories of specimens that contain human remains, nearly a third of the labeled specimens fall under the two categories “Female Organs of Generation” or “Conception and Pregnancy.” Some specimens were accompanied by more contextual information, such as the age or cause of death from whom the specimen was created. Unlike a number of other specimens, none of these have the name of the patient or person the specimen came from attached to them. The names associated with specimens are usually the physicians who “presented” them if they were not attained by Horner, Leidy, or Wistar themselves. These were either area physicians, alumni from the medical school, or, most often, faculty at the medical school.

~Archana Upadhyay

Wistar & Horner Museum