Thomas Jefferson Papers
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Thomas Jefferson to Caspar Wistar, 31 March 1809

To Caspar Wistar

Monticello Mar. 31. 09.

Dear Sir

My grandson being on his return to attend the botanical lectures gives me a safe opportunity of forwarding a livraison of a botanical work of M. Tussac for the Philosophical society, together with his letter, which the society will probably answer. I inclose also for your own perusal a letter to myself from Tenon, Delambre & Cuvier on the subject of the big bones sent to the institute, which I shall ask the favor of you to return, retaining a copy if you please which Jefferson proposes to make for you.

Affectionately yours

Th: Jefferson

PoC (DLC): at foot of text: “Dr Wistar”; endorsed by TJ. Enclosures: (1) François Richard de Tussac, Flora Antillarum: seu, Historia Generalis Botanica, ruralis, oeconomica vegetabilium in Antilles indigenorum, 4 vols. (Paris, 1808–27), vol. 1, pt. 1. (2) Tussac to TJ, 22 Nov. 1808 (not found but recorded in SJL as received from Paris on 11 Mar. 1809). (3) Jean Baptiste Joseph Delambre, Jacques Tenon, and Georges Cuvier to TJ, 14 Nov. 1808, thanking him for his gift of fossil bones to the Institut de France (PPAmP: Caspar Wistar Papers).

Caspar Wistar (1761–1818), physician and educator, corresponded with TJ on scientific and other subjects from 1791 until his death. He received medical degrees from the University of the State of Pennsylvania in 1782 and Edinburgh University in 1786 and set up practice in his native Philadelphia the following year. Starting in 1789, Wistar held several professorships at the College of Philadelphia before and after it merged with his local alma mater to become the University of Pennsylvania in 1791, and he was professor of anatomy from 1808 until his death. An innovative and popular instructor, he published the first American textbook in anatomy, 1811–14. Wistar was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1787, eventually succeeding TJ as its president in 1815. He was one of the scientists charged with preparing Meriwether Lewis for the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Wistar was active in prison reform and became president of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery in 1813 (ANB description begins John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, 1999, 24 vols. description ends ; DAB description begins Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, eds., Dictionary of American Biography, 1928–36, 20 vols. description ends ; DSB description begins Charles C. Gillispie, ed., Dictionary of Scientific Biography, 1970–80, 16 vols. description ends ; Wistar to TJ, [19 Mar. 1791], PTJ description begins Julian P. Boyd, Charles T. Cullen, John Catanzariti, Barbara B. Oberg, and others, eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 1950– , 31 vols. description ends , 19:614–5; TJ to Wistar, 28 Feb. 1803 [DLC]; APS, Minutes, 20 July 1787, 6 Jan. 1815 [MS in PPAmP]).

In 1807 TJ sought Wistar’s advice about educational opportunities in Philadelphia for his grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph and asked Wistar to arrange for Randolph to lodge at the home of Charles Willson Peale (TJ to Wistar, 21 June 1807 [PHC]; Peale to TJ, 30 Aug. 1807 [DLC]).

On behalf of Tussac, Wistar presented the enclosed beginning of his ambitious botanical work to the American Philosophical Society on 21 Apr. 1809 (APS, Minutes). Georges cuvier, French naturalist and founder of vertebrate paleontology (DSB description begins Charles C. Gillispie, ed., Dictionary of Scientific Biography, 1970–80, 16 vols. description ends ), headed a committee of the Institut de France that analyzed the big bones TJ and Wistar had organized and presented as a gift in 1808. TJ thought that his donation, and similar specimens excavated by Peale in 1801, all came from the American “incognitum,” or mammoth. While Cuvier and Lacépède classifed portions of TJ’s donation as coming from the Siberian mammoth, they determined that other parts, as well as Peale’s skeleton, came from a new genus, the extinct mastodon. Cuvier incorporated these findings in his Recherches sur les Ossemens Fossiles, 2d ed. (Paris, 1821), which TJ probably never owned (Notes, ed. Peden description begins Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, ed. William Peden, 1955 description ends , 45; TJ to Lacépède, 14 July 1808 [DLC]; Howard Rice, “Jefferson’s Gift of Fossils to the Museum of Natural History in Paris,” APS, Proceedings 95 [1951]: 597–627).

Index Entries

  • American Philosophical Society; and C. Wistar search
  • American Philosophical Society; members of search
  • American Philosophical Society; TJ forwards material to search
  • anatomy; study of search
  • Cuvier, Georges; analyzes bones for Institut de France search
  • Cuvier, Georges; Recherches sur les Ossemens Fossiles search
  • Delambre, Jean Baptiste Joseph search
  • Flora Antillarum (Tussac) search
  • Institut de France; fossils analyzed by search
  • Institut de France; TJ and C. Wistar give fossil bones to search
  • Lacépède, Bernard Germain Étienne de La Ville-Sur-Illon, comte de; analyzes bones for Institut de France search
  • Lewis, Meriwether; prepares for Lewis and Clark Expedition search
  • mammoth; Institut de France analyzes bones of search
  • mastodon (mammoth, Ohio); bones analyzed by Institut de France search
  • mastodon (mammoth, Ohio); excavated by C. W. Peale search
  • paleontology; and Institut de France search
  • Peale, Charles Willson; and mastodon search
  • Peale, Charles Willson; lodges T. J. Randolph search
  • Randolph, Thomas Jefferson (TJ’s grandson; Jane Hollins Nicholas Randolph’s husband); attends botanical lectures search
  • Randolph, Thomas Jefferson (TJ’s grandson; Jane Hollins Nicholas Randolph’s husband); education of search
  • Recherches sur les Ossemens Fossiles (Cuvier) search
  • Tenon, Jacques search
  • Tussac, François Richard de; Flora Antillarum search
  • Wistar, Caspar; and American Philosophical Society search
  • Wistar, Caspar; and mastodon bones search
  • Wistar, Caspar; identified search
  • Wistar, Caspar; letters to search