The Wistar Institute is the nation’s first independent biomedical research institution. Named after Caspar Wistar, M.D., a well-respected Philadelphia physician, Wistar has an impressive legacy of biomedical research milestones that have impacted the modern history of human health.
Today, Wistar is a world leader in cancer and vaccine research, continuing its tradition of pioneering work in cancer biology, gene expression and epigenetics, immunology, virology and translational research.
The opening of the Robert and Penny Fox Tower in 2014 significantly expanded the Institute’s laboratory facilities and cutting-edge resources allowing Wistar to support a larger community of world-class scientists.
Wistar’s Cancer Center scientists work to advance our understanding of tumor development and metastasis, including how cancer cells interact with the tumor microenvironment and the immune system. Our investigators are at the forefront of cancer immunotherapy. Building on new knowledge of the genetic pathways that drive proliferation and survival of cancer cells, they are developing targeted therapies that withstand resistance and prolong survival.
Researchers at Wistar’s Vaccine & Immunotherapy Center are advancing new generation, DNA-based technologies, such as DNA vaccines and DNA-encoded monoclonal antibodies (DMAbs), which give the body the instructions to respond to emerging infections, such as Zika. Our scientists are at the forefront of the COVID-19 response, applying their expertise to develop vaccines and other solutions to contain the pandemic. Our HIV research team is leading one of the world’s most ambitious HIV cure initiative to date. These strategies and more have the potential to make safe and effective disease prevention available to people around the world.
Caspar Wistar, M.D.: Physician, Anatomist, Teacher
Dr. Wistar was an eminent physician and professor, beloved by his patients for his compassionate and comforting manner, and respected by his students for his clear and charismatic teaching methods. An outstanding anatomist, he is regarded as one of the fathers of American paleontology and left a mark in the history of Philadelphia and the nation with his important contributions, including the first American anatomy textbook and the Wistar anatomical collection.
Dr. Wistar was deeply engaged with the community, as testified by his involvement with several societies, including the Society for the Abolition of Slavery and the Society for Circulating the Benefit of Vaccination. He served as curator and vice president of the American Philosophical Society before succeeding Thomas Jefferson as president. He was a fellow of the College of Physicians and a trustee of the College of Philadelphia.
During his tenure as an anatomy professor at the University Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Dr. Wistar’s lectures drew large crowds of medical students from around the world. To improve their experience, he commissioned America’s first native-born sculptor William Rush to construct three-dimensional, larger-than-life-sized teaching models from wood or papier-mâché́. Dr. Wistar also built an immense collection of anatomical models, including wax-injected organs, bones and skeletal parts, and preparations of animal tissues. After his death, the collection was further expanded by William Horner, M.D., and Joseph Leidy, M.D., and it became known as the Wistar and Horner Museum, housed at the University of Pennsylvania. By the late 1800s, the Museum was in sad shape after years of use and a serious fire, and Dr. Wistar’s prosperous great-nephew, Isaac Jones Wistar, was approached by Penn provost William Pepper, M.D., for a donation to help revitalize the Museum.
Isaac J. Wistar: Lawyer, Soldier, Patron of Scientific Discovery
Isaac Jones Wistar, great-nephew of Dr. Wistar, was an American Renaissance man of his time, a prominent Philadelphia lawyer and Civil War Brigadier General. He served as president of the American Philosophical Society (like his great uncle before him) and the Academy of Natural Sciences.
Despite his adventurous life, Isaac’s most notable and long-lived contribution was to the biological sciences. Initially inclined to make a donation to help revitalize the Wistar and Horner Museum, he eventually opted for a bigger commitment and funded an endowment and a research building for The Wistar Institute of Anatomy and Biology, which would house the Wistar and Horner Museum while also initiating “any other work for the increase of original scientific knowledge.”
The Wistar Institute of Anatomy and Biology
The incorporation of the Institute took place on April 22, 1892 and its first building, designed by Philadelphia architects George W. and William G. Hewitt, was dedicated on May 21, 1894. The Institute is listed in the National Register of Historic Places as part of the historic university area and is recognized by a historic marker from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
The Early Years
Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, The Wistar Institute began to embody Isaac Wistar’s vision of a center for “new and original research” in the biological and medical sciences.
Under the leadership of Milton Greenman, M.D., and Henry Donaldson, Ph.D., the Institute prioritized its research into experimental and investigative biology. Helen Dean King, Ph.D., developed and bred the Wistar rat, the first standardized laboratory animal model from which more than half of all laboratory rats today are thought to be descended. The Institute also gained international recognition as a training ground for young scientists thanks to the scientific journals published by the Wistar Press. Between 1905 and 1925, Wistar scientists published 227 original scientific papers. By 1925, the Institute had solidified its reputation as a center of American biology.
Seminal Advances in the 20th Century
The modern era of scientific discovery at The Wistar Institute began under the leadership of Hilary Koprowski, M.D.. Beginning in the 1950s, the Institute became a leader in vaccine research. This research was made possible by the creation of a cell line known as WI-38. Developed by Leonard Hayflick, Ph.D., and Paul S. Moorhead, Ph.D., WI-38 served as the basis for the advancement of many safe vaccines, including those against rubella and rabies.
By the 1970s, Wistar was devoting a major part of its effort and financial resources to cancer research, and in 1972, the Institute earned the designation of National Cancer Institute Cancer Center in basic research. A new Cancer Research building and a vivarium were erected in 1975.
Wistar scientists were among the first to develop antiviral and antitumor monoclonal antibodies that have been widely used as tools for basic research and to develop therapies against cancer and immune diseases. Wistar scientists have been pioneers in the study of oncogenes and the genetic basis of cancer.
The Wistar Institute houses a collection of historical objects and documents that embody the Institute’s legacy, its role as the nation’s oldest independent biomedical research institute, and the history of the Wistar family as related to the Institute.
The collection includes:
- Records of The Wistar Institute, its directors and scientists, and of the Wistar Press, WISTARAT, and the Wistar Museum.
- Correspondence, books and manuscript collections compiled by Isaac Jones Wistar, and his Civil War ephemera.
- Records and correspondence of the Wistar family, beginning with the New Jersey glass house established by Caspar Wistar the elder in 1726.