The Wistar Institute Purchases Portrait of Prominent Physician and Namesake

The Wistar Institute Purchases Portrait of Prominent Physician and Namesake

May 15, 2007

(PHILADELPHIA– May 16, 2007) – The Wistar Institute has purchased a painting of its namesake, prominent Philadelphia physician Caspar Wistar, created by a celebrated artist and inventor with ties to the Philadelphia area. The Institute acquired the oil portrait by Bass Otis, who lived and worked in Philadelphia in the 1800s, from the Schwarz Gallery. It was part of the collection of the Mutual Assurance Co.

Widely respected as a physician and man of learning, Dr. Wistar became professor of chemistry at the medical school of the College of Philadelphia, later the University of Pennsylvania, in 1789 and became chair of Penn’s department of anatomy in 1808. He wrote the first American anatomy textbook and was an early advocate of vaccination. Learned in the humanities, he succeeded his friend Thomas Jefferson as president of the American Philosophical Society and hosted “Wistar parties” for leading intellectuals at his home at Fourth and Locust streets.

Dr. Wistar’s great-nephew, Civil War general Isaac Wistar, founded the Wistar Institute in 1892 in his great-uncle’s honor to preserve the doctor’s collection of anatomical models used as teaching aids and further knowledge in the biological sciences. Today, Wistar draws top scientists from all over the world to conduct cutting-edge biomedical research. The Institute is known for its development of lifesaving vaccines and advances in the understanding of cancer and other major diseases. It also partners with local organizations to offer community events and educational programs.

“We’re very proud of our history and the active role we have played in the scientific and cultural life of Philadelphia, reaching back to Caspar Wistar’s contributions to teaching and knowledge in the post-Colonial era,” said Russel E. Kaufman, M.D., president and CEO of The Wistar Institute. “Our feeling is that this exquisite portrait of our namesake, painted by a significant American artist, belongs at The Wistar Institute, where we will be able to care for it in perpetuity. Were delighted to have the opportunity to acquire the painting at this time.”

The portrait was painted in 1816 by artist and inventor Bass Otis, a Massachusetts native and physician’s son who moved to Philadelphia in 1812 and established a studio at third and Chestnut streets. There, Otis conceived his most famous invention, a drawing aid called the perspective protractor. A master of portraiture, he is thought to have worked in the studio of renowned portraitist John Wesley Jarvis. Otis’s best-known sitters included Thomas Jefferson, Dolly Madison, James Fenimore Cooper, and William Henry Harrison, but most of his subjects were prominent members of the local middle class. He also designed flags and engraved handbills and is credited with being the first American lithographer.

Otis exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, was a member of the Franklin Institute of Science, and was elected an academician of the Pennsylvania Academy in 1824. Although active in several East Coast cities, he often returned to Philadelphia and died there in 1861 at age 77.

The Mutual Assurance Co. acquired the painting when it moved into the house formerly occupied by Dr. Wistar. The portrait joins a number of other historically significant works of art in the Institute’s collection.

Wistar archivist Nina Long views the portrait of Dr. Wistar as an appropriate reflection of the Institute’s mission. Describing Dr. Wistar as a “compassionate” man who was “devoted to science and medicine,” Long noted also his dedication to teaching and civic involvement – traditions carried on by the Institute today. “We’re part of the city, we have this long history, and our archival collections relate to our involvement with all of these areas,” she said. “Our past tells us who we are.”

A color image of the portrait is available to be downloaded at

The Wistar Institute is an international leader in biomedical research, with special expertise in cancer research and vaccine development. Founded in 1892 as the first independent nonprofit biomedical research institute in the country, Wistar has long held the prestigious Cancer Center designation from the National Cancer Institute. Discoveries at Wistar have led to the creation of the rubella vaccine that eradicated the disease in the U.S., rabies vaccines used worldwide, and a new rotavirus vaccine approved in 2006. Wistar scientists have also identified many cancer genes and developed monoclonal antibodies and other important research tools. Today, Wistar is home to eminent melanoma researchers and pioneering scientists working on experimental vaccines against influenza, HIV, and other diseases threatening global health. The Institute works actively to transfer its inventions to the commercial sector to ensure that research advances move from the laboratory to the clinic as quickly as possible.

The Wistar Institute: Today’s Discoveries – Tomorrow’s Cures. On the web at