WISTERIA, WISTARIA

The wisteria is a climbing woody vine clustered with drooping, pealike, purplish or white flowers. The name of this vine was given by Thomas Nuttal, curator of Harvard’s Botanical Garden, who made an error in spelling the name of the man he planned to honor. That man’s name was Wistar. But at the death of the honoree in 1818, the plant was named wisteria. Nuttal wrote in his Genera North American Plants IJ, «In memory of Casper Wistar, M.D., late professor of Anatomy in the University of Pennsylvania». But too late. Nuttal had already named the
plant wisteria. Later writers followed the error, thus perpetuating it. Purists tried to rectify the mistake, but to no avail.
Dr. Casper Wistar (1761-1818), a Quaker and the son of a prominent colonial glassblower in Philadelphia, studied medicine in Edinburgh then returned home to teach at the College and Academy of Philadelphia, which was merged into the University of Pennsylvania. He wrote America’s first anatomy book, and taught anatomy, midwifery, and surgery. His anatomical collection became the origin of the world-famous Wistar Institute of Anatomy and Biology, located in the heart of the university. Lie also became the president of the American Philosophical Society, succeeding Thomas Jefferson. His Sunday afternoon at-home gatherings attracted many of his friends who came to hear Wistar discourse on topics of interest.
Wistar’s great-nephew, Isaac Jones Wistar (1827-1905), wealthy entrepreneur, endowed the Wistar Institute.
Joshua Logan (1908-1988), a prominent producer-director-playwright, named a play of his The Wistaria Trees (1950) in a fruitless effort to have the public recognize the correct spelling of the honoree’s name. Wisteria is ingrained, however, in the spelling psyche of Americans and dictionaries perpetuate the misspelling.