Historic Philadelphia hospitals

Guest post by Jay Blossom

Last week I had the misfortune to be treated at two of America’s most historic hospitals, both less than a mile from my house in Philadelphia.

On Tuesday night, I spent a few hours in the Emergency Department at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. Jefferson Medical College was founded in 1824 when a group of upstart doctors, seeking to create an alternative to the University of Pennsylvania’s monopoly on medical education, sought out the trustees of Jefferson College in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, and asked them to create a medical college in Philadelphia. Jefferson College agreed, but Canonsburg is more than 300 miles from Philadelphia, so the college formed a separate committee of trustees to oversee the Philadelphia institution. In 1838, the Pennsylvania legislature granted Jefferson Medical College a separate charter, forever divorcing it from its distant parent.

Jefferson’s founders emphasized clinical practice, so in 1828 they had opened an infirmary for the poor in their new Ely Building, where they treated 441 inpatients and more than 4,500 outpatients in their first year of operation. The Ely Building also included a 700-seat surgical amphitheater, the “Pit,” where students could observe surgeries. Jefferson Hospital, where I was treated on Tuesday, opened in 1877.

Among the early faculty at Jefferson was surgeon Thomas D. Mütter, who in 1858 donated his collection of medical specimens to The College of Physicians of Philadelphia to form the nucleus of the Mütter Museum, a remarkable collection of curiosities that is open to the public.

"The Gross Clinic by Thomas Eakins. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art."

“The Gross Clinic by Thomas Eakins. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.”

Another early pioneer was the surgeon Samuel D. Gross, class of 1828, whom 31-year-old painter Thomas Eakins immortalized in The Gross Clinic. Eakins created this monumental work of 8 feet by 6.5 feet specifically for the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, and it helped to establish his reputation as a master of realism. Unfortunately, the painting’s frank depiction of an operation in progress offended the exhibition’s judges, who relegated it to the Centennial Exhibition’s medical arts building.

Purchased for $200 by Jefferson alumni, The Gross Clinic was on display at the medical school until 2006, when Jefferson decided to sell it for $68 million to the National Gallery of Art and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Local outcry resulted instead in a joint purchase by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, two Philadelphia institutions that alternate in showing it.

Pennsylvania Hospital, center block

Pennsylvania Hospital, center block

On Wednesday night, still unwell, I stopped in the Emergency Department at another venerable Philadelphia health care facility. Pennsylvania Hospital was co-founded in 1751 by Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Bond, a Maryland-born, European-educated physician who had lived in Philadelphia since 1739. The two had already collaborated on the founding of the American Philosophical Society in 1743, and Bond later personally attended to Franklin’s common-law wife, Deborah, during her final illness in 1774.

The hospital’s 1751 charter from the Pennsylvania legislature enabled the creation of a hospital for the indigent and the insane, and in 1751, a temporary hospital was opened in a house on Market Street. Just four years later, the cornerstone was laid for the hospital’s permanent home on 8th Street — the current east wing, still in use today. In 1767, the Penn family donated the entire block between 8th and 9th Streets and between Spruce and Pine Streets, and the room where I spent Wednesday and Thursday nights is just about in the center of that block.

0826161327Like Jefferson hospital in the next century, Pennsylvania Hospital boasted a medical staff of innovators. Benjamin Rush, on staff from 1783 until 1813, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and an early specialist in the treatment of the mentally ill. Phillip Syng Physick, on staff from 1794 until 1816, was a pioneer of surgery — the precursor to later greats like Mütter and Gross. Indeed, the hospital’s surgical amphitheater, 30 feet high and 28 feet in diameter, opened in 1804 on the top floor of the new central block (seen here) which joined the original east wing and later west wing. The amphitheater still exists and was restored to its original appearance in 1976.

In 1765, the University of Pennsylvania (which was also co-founded by Franklin) established a faculty to teach anatomy and the “theory and practice of physick.” Pennsylvania Hospital, just a few blocks away, was a natural partner, and medical students often became apprentices of the practicing physicians at the hospital. Since 1997, the long-independent Pennsylvania Hospital has been owned by the University of Pennsylvania Health System.

I’m pleased to say that the medical care at Pennsylvania Hospital remains excellent after 265 years. I was discharged on Friday with a diagnosis of cellulitis and sent home with antibiotics and steroids. I’m on the mend, but it’s good to know that Franklin’s hospital is close by.

About Tim

Author, public historian, and consultant. Author site: timgrove.net - My fifth book, Star Spangled: The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and the American Anthem, was published in May 2020. Consulting site: grovehistoryconsulting.com I specialize in exhibition development, interpretive planning, education strategy, and history relevance. I'm passionate about helping history organizations of all sizes and kinds make history more relevant for their communities and the people they engage with. I'm happy to consider many types of writing projects for informal learning organizations. Reach me at tim@grovehistoryconsulting.com or authortimgrove@gmail.com
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