Correia da Serra, José Francisco, 1750-1823

Alternative names
Birth 1750
Death 1823
Portuguese, English, French, Latin

Biographical notes:

Portuguese statesman; scholar and botanist.

From the description of Autograph letter signed : Washington, to [Thomas Jefferson], 1817 Feb. 22. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 270530939

José Francisco Correia da Serra was a Portuguese scholar, naturalist, and diplomat. Caspar Wistar was a Philadelphia physician.

From the description of Note nécrologique sur le Docteur Wistar, 1818. (American Philosophical Society Library). WorldCat record id: 122539921

Joseph Francisco Corrêa da Serra was a Portuguese scholar, naturalist, and diplomat.

From the description of Papers, 1772-1823 (bulk). (American Philosophical Society Library). WorldCat record id: 122578752

José Francisco Correia da Serra was a Portuguese scholar, naturalist, and diplomat.

From the description of Letters, 1810-1823. (American Philosophical Society Library). WorldCat record id: 122540848

José Francisco Correia da Serra (1750–1823, APS 1812) was an abbot, diplomat, scholar and botanist. In his work as a botanist he was particularly concerned with the systematic classification of vegetable species. Thomas Jefferson described him as “profoundly learned in several branches of science he was so above all others in that of Botany; in which he preferred an amalgamation of the methods of Linnaeus [1707-1778, APS 1769] and of Jussieu [1686-1758] to either of them exclusively.” Correia spent many years of his life in France, England and the United States where he made the acquaintance of leading European and American intellectual leaders of the time.

Correia was born in Serpa, Portugal, to the physician and lawyer Luis Dias Correia and Francisca Luisa da Serra. In 1756 the family was forced to leave Portugal because the elder Correia’s scientific work had incurred the displeasure of the Holy Office. They settled in Naples, Italy, where the boy came under the tutelage of the abbé and university professor of “Commerce and mechanics” Antonio Genovesi (1712-1769), a major force in the Neapolitan Enlightenment. During this time Correia was also taught in natural history by the botanist Luis Antonio Verney (1713-1792). In 1772 Correia moved to Rome where he studied at the University and other institutions. By that time he was already corresponding with Carl Linnaeus, in Latin. He also made the acquaintance of Don John Carlos of Braganza, second Duke of Lafoens, a member of the Portuguese royal family. The Duke became Correia’s friend and patron.

In 1775 Correia was ordained a Presbyterian abbot; two years later he received the degree of Doctor of Laws. However, it was clear that Correia’s real interest was natural history, especially botany, and that he did not plan to pursue a life in the church. In fact, some of his biographers have suggested that he focused on ecclesiastical studies mainly in order to protect himself in his scientific work from potential suspicions by the Inquisition. Whatever the case, in early 1778 the young abbé, with encouragement from the duke, who hoped to encourage scientific research in Portugal, moved to Lisbon. There he turned his attention to scholarly pursuits and diplomacy.

Correia and the duke set out right away to organize the Royal Academy of Sciences of Lisbon, a learned institution that was dedicated to the advancement of science. Correia also conducted botanical research. He spent the period from 1786 to about 1788 outside of Portugal, and while his activities during this period remain unclear, there is evidence that he visited Rome. In the mid-1790s, after his return to his native country, he began the task of editing what would be the first three of five volumes of Colleccao de livros ineditos da historia Portugueza, an extensive collection of documents.

In 1795 political difficulties compelled Correia to leave Portugal. The Royal Academy and many of its members were viewed with suspicion by certain ecclesiastical groups, especially after Correia befriended the French naturalist and Girondist Peter Marie Auguste Broussonet (1761-1807), who had taken refuge in Portugal. Armed with letters of introduction to several British scientists, Correia traveled to London. He soon became the protégé of Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820, APS 1787), president of the Royal Society, who facilitated Correia’s election to the Society. He also was welcomed by James Edward Smith (1759-1828, APS 1796), president of the Linnean Society. By then, Correia was already publishing on various natural science topics, especially botany, which contributed to his growing reputation as a naturalist.

For about one year during his residence in London, Correia also served as Secretary to the Portuguese embassy. However, tensions with the conservative Minister compelled him to depart from England in 1802. In the summer of that year, Correia moved to Paris. There he made the acquaintance of leading scientists and other public figures. The list includes Pierre Samuel Du Pont de Nemours (1739–1817, APS 1800), the Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834, APS 1781), Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859, APS 1804), the French naturalist Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), Augustin Pyrame de Candolle (1778-1841, APS 1841), and André Thouin (1746-1824), superintendent of the Jardin du Roi, now known as Jardin des Plantes, in Paris. Correia also met Esther Delavigne, who eventually became his lover.

Of particular importance to Correia was his extensive correspondence with friends in Portugal that he maintained throughout his time in London, Paris and then the United States. Through his contact with them he hoped to bring the latest scientific ideas and discoveries to his mother country. His letters are filled with news of new vaccines, maritime maps, instruments, and anything else that he thought might serve to aid the progress of Portugal. Correia’s wide-ranging contacts with fellow botanists made him an important intermediary in the exchanges between naturalists in different parts of the world. In 1807 his own government recognized his contributions by making him a Knight of the Order of Christ.

Overall, Correia’s time in Paris was happy and fruitful. However, life as a liberal under Napoleon was not easy, and Correia soon began to explore the possibility of relocating once again, this time to the United States. Finally, in the winter of 1811, the abbé was aboard the U.S.S. Constitution, on his way to what would become a particularly interesting period in his life.

Correia arrived in Washington, D. C., in early 1812, and he did not lose time in making the acquaintance of leading Americans, including President James Madison. He was anxious to visit Thomas Jefferson but owing to the fact that Philadelphia was the intellectual center of the new nation, he decided to establish himself there first. His European friends had already announced Correia’s imminent arrival to several prominent Philadelphians, including the physicians Benjamin Rush (1745-1813, APS 1768) and Caspar Wistar (1761-1818, APS 1787), and John Vaughan (1756–1841, APS 1784), the treasurer and librarian of the American Philosophical Society. The abbé was elected a member of the Society in January of 1812, before his arrival in the city. He became close friends with Vaughan who soon handled his business affairs and advised him in all kinds of matters. Correia also got to know the botanist Henry Muhlenberg (1753-1815, APS 1785), who introduced him to the physician and botanist Jacob Bigelow (1787-1879, APS 1818). And he reconnected with several Philadelphians he knew from his time in Paris, including the lawyer and financier Nicholas Biddle (1786-1844, APS 1813), and William Short (1759-1849, APS 1804), Jefferson’s private secretary in Paris. Life in Philadelphia was clearly enjoyable for the Portuguese exile but he remained anxious to visit “the great the truly great Mr. Jefferson.” In July of 1813 he left for Virginia for the first of what would eventually be seven visits over a period of about eight years.

Jefferson had been introduced to Correia in glowing letters from Lafayette, Du Pont, Thouin, and Humboldt. It is not surprising, then, that Jefferson received the visitor with warmth and great expectations. They were not disappointed. Jefferson described his guest as “the best digest of science in books, men, and things that I have ever met with; and with these the most amiable and engaging character.” The room in which Correia stayed during his visits to Monticello, the North Square Room, is still known as the Abbé’s room. Correia spent much of his time in Virginia on rambles through the country, often in the company of Thomas Mann Randolph (1768-1828, APS 1794). His interest in natural history eventually also took him to Kentucky, Georgia and north to the Canadian border.

Through Jefferson, Correia made the acquaintance of Francis Walker Gilmer (1790-1826), a promising young man who readily accepted the abbé’s invitation to accompany him on his excursions. In 1816 President Madison asked the two men to deliver a letter from him to the agent of the Cherokee, in the southeastern United States. In the course of their journey through South Carolina and Georgia, they made extensive botanical notations, and Gilmer also recorded several pages of Cherokee vocabulary.

In 1816 Correia received news of his appointment as Portuguese minister-plenipotentiary at Washington, D. C. His expectation that this post would not interfere with his scientific pursuits turned out to be mistaken, even though he never spent more than half a year in the nation’s capital. From the start he was forced to deal with complaints about privateers flying foreign flags who were threatening the Portuguese colonies in South America. The fear was that these privateers, many of whom were American, could encourage and aid a rebellion in Brazil. Correia successfully lobbied the U. S. government for a Neutrality Act that was designed to curb these actions.

In the late 1810s, increasing worries about the turn of Portuguese-American affairs and serious health problems gradually made the abbé’s temper shorter and his spirits lower. He also ultimately became a severe critic of America and Americans, an attitude that contributed to his estrangement from some of his older American friends. However, he also found comfort in new relationships with, for example, the English-born chemist and lawyer Thomas Cooper (1759-1839, APS 1802). Most significantly, Edward Joseph, his fifteen-year old son with his lover Esther Delavigne arrived in the United States from Paris in 1818. Edward, who stayed with his father until their return to Europe, got to know many of his Philadelphia friends quite well. In 1820 father and son sailed from the United States for Portugal via London, a year after Correia had learned of his appointment as Counselor of State for Brazil. Correia spent the last three years of his life in Lisbon, “covered with honors,” as his son Edward wrote in a letter to John Vaughan. He died in Lisbon in 1823.

Correia published many essays and reports on botany in the leading European and American scientific journals of his time. His research centered on the systematic classification of vegetable species. In his work he attempted to apply the methods of compared anatomy of zoology to botany; he sought to group plants into families based on their similarities. His concept of symmetry was later adopted and developed by Candolle. While Correia was not “a member of every philosophical society in the world,” as his young protégé Gilmer wrote enthusiastically in a letter to his brother, he did belong to numerous learned societies. They included the Royal Society, the Linnean Society, the Academy of Science of Paris, and the Société Philomatique. He also offered several courses in botany at the American Philosophical Society.

From the guide to the José Francisco Correia da Serra papers, 1772-1827, 1772-1827, (American Philosophical Society)

Caspar Wistar (1761-1818, APS 1787) was a Philadelphia physician and paleontologist. He was a professor at the University of Pennsylvania for three decades, and he served the American Philosophical Society in various offices, including that of president. He was the host of the popular weekly gatherings of local and visiting learned men that became known as the Wistar Parties.

He was born in Philadelphia, the son of Richard Wistar (1727-1781), a glass manufacturer, and Sarah Wyatt Wistar (1733-1771). His seven siblings included his younger sister Catharine, who was married to Benjamin Franklin’s grandson William Bache. Wistar is sometimes called Caspar Wistar, Jr., to distinguish him from his grandfather, also named Caspar Wistar (1696-1752). The elder Caspar was a merchant and glassmaker who had moved from Wald-Hilspach, Germany, to Philadelphia in 1717.

Born a Quaker, Wistar was educated at the Friends School at Fourth and Walnut Streets in Philadelphia. At age sixteen he volunteered as a nurse at the Battle of Germantown in 1777. It is said that this experience inspired him to become a physician. He commenced his medical studies that year, under the physician John Redman and later also with John Jones, a New York physician who had fled to Philadelphia. In 1779 Wistar enrolled in the medical department of what was then called the University of the State of Pennsylvania. In 1782, after receipt of his Bachelor of Medicine, he set out for a three year tour of study in England and Scotland. (Wistar was a practicing Friend throughout his life; however, prior to his departure he had trouble securing a certificate that testified to his diligent adherence to conduct becoming to a Friend for he had fallen “into Scandalous & alarming temptation of being engaged in a duel.”) While still a student he was elected one of the presidents of the Royal Medical Society and also president of the Society for the Further Investigation of Natural History. During his stay in England and Scotland he made the acquaintance of several notable figures, including James Boswell, Sir James McIntosh and William Cullen (1710-1790, APS 1768). In 1786 he graduated from the University of Edinburgh with a Doctorate of Medicine.

Back in Philadelphia, Wistar established a private medical practice that soon grew into one of the largest in the city. He was also elected to the College of Physicians and served as a physician to the Philadelphia Dispensary. In 1788 he became a professor of chemistry at the medical school of the College of Philadelphia in 1788. After the merger of the College with the University of the State of Pennsylvania in 1791, Wistar became an adjunct professor of anatomy, midwifery and surgery. In 1793 he joined the staff of the Pennsylvania Hospital. He nearly lost his life during the yellow fever epidemic of 1793 after being stricken by the disease while assisting his friend Benjamin Rush (1745-1813, APS 1768) in fighting the epidemic. Differences of opinion regarding treatment of this disease, including the drastic use of bleeding and purging, eventually caused a breech in their friendship. Nevertheless, Wistar remained Rush’s colleague at the Pennsylvania Hospital until 1810. In 1808 he was appointed to the chair in anatomy which had formerly been occupied by William Shippen. Wistar remained on the Penn faculty until his death in 1818.

Wistar was a popular teacher who enlivened his presentations with drawings and models that made it easier for students to follow his lectures and demonstrations. He developed a number of unique teaching aids, some of which were life-sized anatomical models made of dried and wax-injected human limbs and organs. Others were fashioned of wood, carved by America's first professional sculptor, William Rush. Two years before his death, Wistar appointed Dr. William Edmonds Horner (1793-1853, APS 1819), his long-time assistant in anatomy, as caretaker of these valuable models. Horner later enlarged the collection and opened the first anatomical museum in the United States, the Wistar and Horner Museum. The collection eventually passed to the Wistar Institute of Anatomy and Biology, the first independent medical research facility established in the United States. The Institute, which was founded in 1892 by Wistar's great-nephew, Isaac J. Wistar (1827-1905, APS 1893), was named in honor of Caspar Wistar.

Wistar's reputation drew medical students to Philadelphia from around the world. His anatomy courses became so large that they eventually had to be divided into sections. Wistar wrote the first and very successful treatise on anatomy published in the United States, titled A System of Anatomy (2 vols., 1811, 1814). However, he was widely respected not only for his medical knowledge, but also for his general breadth of knowledge, which included the humanities as well as the sciences. In fact, while Wistar made few contributions to medical literature – his only medical article, a description of the sphenoid sinuses, was published the year he died –, he contributed several papers on scientific subjects outside of medicine, including paleontology and botany. His reputation as an authority on fossil bones was established as early as 1787, when he and Timothy Matlack (1730-1823, APS 1780) presented a paper on what may have been the first dinosaur bone examined by American scientists. In 1799 he published an article on the bones of the giant “megalonix” that Thomas Jefferson had deposited with the American Philosophical Society two years earlier. The essay, which appeared in the Society’s Transactions, is regarded as the first technical study of professional quality to be published by an American or in America in the field of vertebrate paleontology. One historian has called the achievement “almost incredible in view of the paleontological naïveté of his associates and of the lack of comparative materials.” Wistar also collaborated in Jefferson’s efforts to obtain the bones of the mastodon and associated animals, and he studied specimens returned from the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Some of his observations on the latter were published posthumously in the Transactions .

Wistar was as popular with his professional colleagues as he was with Philadelphia’s literati. He was particularly known for his hospitality, and his home was the weekly meeting place of students and scientists, including locals and distinguished foreign visitors. The physician Charles Caldwell (1772-1853, APS 1796) recalled later that “The company met, without ceremony, on a stated evening, where in the midst of a succession of suitable refreshments, the time passed away, oftentimes until a late hour, in agreeable, varied, and instructive discourse.” The “company” included, for example, Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859, APS 1804), who was a guest of honor when he visited Philadelphia in 1800, as well as the French botanist François Andre Michaux (1749-1802). A frequent attendant after his arrival in the United States in 1812 was the Abbé Corrêa da Serra (1750–1823, APS 1812), the Portuguese diplomat and naturalist. Wistar, who shared with the Abbé a serous interest in botany, became his close friend and accompanied him on several expeditions. The Wistar Parties were so popular that several leading members of the American Philosophical Society, including Stephen DuPonceau (1760-1844, APS 1791), continued to host them regularly after Wistar’s death.

Wistar was active in numerous scientific and learned organizations. He was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1787. He served as its curator in 1793 and vice-president in 1795, before succeeding Thomas Jefferson as president in 1815, a position he held until his death. Wistar was especially supportive of the Historical and Literary Committee that was established in 1815 to serve as the collection, research, and publishing arm of the Society. He was elected a Fellow of the College of Physicians in 1788, and he served as a trustee of the College of Philadelphia from 1789 to 1791. In 1815 he was elected an honorary member of the Literary and Philosophical Society of New York. The botanist Thomas Nuttall (1786-1859, APS 1817) honored Wistar by naming the plant genus Wisteria after him.

Wistar’s support of many progressive causes is reflected in his affiliation with a number of reform organizations. He was a founder of the Society for Circulating the Benefit of Vaccination, and he belonged to the Pennsylvania Prison Society, the Humane Society, and the Society for the Abolition of Slavery, of which he became president in 1813. In 1791 Wistar bought and then freed a slave “to extricate him from that degraded Situation.”

Caspar Wistar died in 1818 after a period of declining health. He was married twice, first in 1788 to Isabella Marshall, who died childless two years later. In 1798 he married Elizabeth Mifflin, with whom he had three children: Dr. Richard Mifflin Wistar, Dr. Mifflin Wistar, and Elizabeth Wistar. There were no grandchildren.

From the guide to the Note nécrologique sur le Docteur Wistar, 1818, 1818, (American Philosophical Society)


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