Wistar & Horner Museum

The Founders


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 University 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 1791. At the time, the institution was named the College of Philadelphia. When the college united with 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 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, earning his degree in 1814. After graduating, he worked in a US Army hospital on the Canadian border and then practiced medicine in Virginia for a brief time before returning to Philadelphia. At Penn, He served as a dissector for Wistar and held several positions in the Department of Anatomy including, Demonstrator, Adjunct Professor, and eventually Professor. He was Dean of the Medical Faculty when Wistar appointed him as the museum's curator. Under Horner and later curator Joseph Leidy, the collection expanded to include over 700 specimens.


The Museum

The Horner & Wistar collection included human remains preserved in wet and dry preparations. 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, the collector claimed the body as a cadaver, and then dissected it, injected it with preservatives, dried, brined, and jarred it for wet preparations, or wired and mounted it for dry preparations.

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 1000 items listed as part of the Museum. About 675 were human wet and dry preparations, about 200 were animal and plant specimens, and about 200 were built anatomical models, paintings, books, and miscellaneous items.

Of the human specimens, 23 are labeled as “negro,” “black,” or “African.” The majority of these preparations fall under the listed categories “Female Organs of Generation,” “Conception and Pregnancy”, or “Skin”, as well as cranial-related specimens. Some specimens were accompanied by more contextual information, such as the age or cause of death of the person from whom the specimen was created. Unlike a number of other specimens, none of the specimens labeled as black have the name of the patient or person from which the specimen came.. The names associated with specimens are usually the physicians who “presented” them if they were not provided 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