What's in a name

From the vegetable patch where I was working I noticed the evening sunshine illuminating the house, with some Wisteria blossom in the foreground. The Wisteria was planted originally to drape over an archway that has long gone and it now remains as an awkward free standing bush. It's more familiar as a clambering vine that adorns old walls in a sometimes spectacular fashion.

I'm always curious about the surnames that were given to plant species since they often commemorate interesting but long-forgotten individuals. In the case of Wisteria I found an unexpected connection with a place I know quite well: Philadelphia. The plant, which is native to the Eastern United States as well as to China and Japan, was named by the Yorkshire-born 19th century botanist Thomas Nuttall in honour of Dr Caspar Wistar (1761-1818) of Philadelphia. A Quaker of German descent, his interest in medicine was sparked by caring for the wounded in the Battle of Germantown in 1777. Wistar became a highly-regarded physician and anatomist, an advocate of vaccination and an opponent of slavery.

Typically of those early Philly literati, it was his habit to throw open his house once every week in the winter, and at these gatherings students, citizens, scientists, and travelers met and discussed subjects of interest. These assemblies, celebrated in the annals of Philadelphia under the title of Wistar parties, were continued long after his death by other residents of that city.

I am sure I have many times passed by the world-famous Wistar Institute in Philadelphia, a centre of bio-medical research that had its origins in the anatomy collection of human and animal specimens started by Caspar. The institute, endowed by a descendent, is primarily known for its research into the genetics of cancer and can also claim the development in 1906 of the Wistar rat, the first standardized laboratory animal. It is estimated that more than half of all laboratory rats today are descendants of the line. I'm sure that Guinea Pig Zero, as a fellow medical research subject, will know more about that.

In this image the tree shadows thrown upon the house seem to have a slightly spooky quality and if you like stories of the supernatural, calculated to produce a shudder, try The Giant Wistaria by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, published 1891.

(Note: Wisteria is thought by some to be correctly spelt Wistaria but in fact it seems that both the 'er' and the 'ar' versions of the name were used by the family.)

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