Some people tell me the Wistar Institute is part of Penn. But other people tell me it is not affiliated with the University at all. What’s the truth? And what, by the way, does the Institute do?
Although the Wistar Institute has strong historic and contemporary ties to Penn, it is not formally affiliated with the University. Founded in 1892, it was the nation’s first independent biomedical research facility, named for Caspar Wistar, author of the first American textbook of anatomy, and a good friend of Thomas Jefferson. In 1808, Wistar was named Chair of the Department of Anatomy at Penn’s School of Medicine.
Wistar was known for giving compelling lectures about comparative anatomy, using preserved human specimens as well as detailed wooden and papier-maché models created by the famous sculptor William Rush. Wistar’s collection grew to become quite famous, and after his death in 1818, William Homer (who later served as Dean of the School of Medicine) made sure it was preserved.
In the 1880s, Penn Provost William Pepper headed a fundraising campaign to house and protect the collection. Wistar’s great nephew, Isaac Jones Wistar, paid for the construction of the Wistar Institute of Anatomy and Biology and funded an endowment for the Institute.
The building, which sits at the corner of 36th and Spruce streets, was designed by Philadelphia architects George W. and William G. Hewitt. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has been designated with a historical marker from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
In the 1950s, the Institute became a leader in vaccine research, and by the 1970s devoted most of its research to the study of cancer. Today, its 30 laboratories focus on gene expression and regulation, immunology and molecular and cellular oncogenesis. Penn and Wistar researchers often collaborate on projects, and the Institute has a postdoctoral program open to Penn students.
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Originally published on January 7, 2010