Feuding Founders of First US Medical School

Feuding Founders of First US Medical School

The early years of the nation’s first medical school did not go smoothly. Not at all.

The medical school, now the Perelman School of Medicine, was founded under the auspices of the College of Philadelphia, which would eventually become the University of Pennsylvania. The first class of medical students started classes on Thursday, November, 14, 1765, at Surgeons Hall, now called Library Hall, across the street from Independence Hall. At first the school consisted of sixty lectures on human anatomy as well as a course in the “theory and practice of physik,” a now archaic term meaning “the science of the principles operative in organic nature.”

The medical school was founded by two men, William Shippen Jr. and John Morgan, though Morgan is generally credited with being the primary founder. Theirs was a complicated history fraught with anger, resentment, and betrayal. Both grew up in Philadelphia, and both received their medical education at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, where a great many US physicians went to medical school in in the late 1700s and into the 1800s. Shippen attended Edinburgh a few years before Morgan and returned to Philadelphia in 1762, three years before Morgan returned.

Morgan and Shippen knew each other in school and had discussed the need for a medical school in the United States, though they differed in what that school should look like. Morgan envisioned a school similar to the University of Edinburgh‘s medical school, one associated with an institution of higher learning. Shippen, on the other hand, envisioned a medical school more like those in London, one associated with hospitals, not colleges or universities.

When Shippen returned to Philadelphia he began offering lectures on anatomy, surgery, and midwifery on his own. His discussions with Morgan led him to believe that after Morgan graduated and returned to Philadelphia, they would both establish a medical school in the city. “I should long since have sought the patronage of the Trustees of the College [of Philadelphia],” wrote Shippen in a letter to the trustees, “but waited to be joined by Dr. Morgan, to whom I first communicated my plan in England, and who promised to unite with me in every scheme we might think necessary for the execution of so important a point.”

John Morgan (left) and William Shippen Jr.

Morgan Strikes First

Morgan, however, had other ideas. When he returned to Philadelphia from Edinburgh in 1765, he immediately proposed to start a medical school at the College of Philadelphia. College trustees loved the idea and appointed Morgan as chair of Theory and Practice of Physik. Morgan set up classes on anatomy and physik, but failed to do so for surgery. “Morgan had disparaged surgery as an unintellectual, mechanical art, repugnant to sensitive men,” wrote George W. Corner in his book Two Centuries of Medicine: A History of the School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania. “He was apparently willing to leave it to be taught by apprenticeship alone, for he proposed no chair of surgery in the school.”

Guess who was a surgeon? William Shippen.

Shippen felt betrayed, though he accepted Morgan’s offer to become professor of anatomy and surgery. Even so, Morgan’s self-appointment as chair constituted a huge affront to the elder physician’s ego. From that point forward, the two men feuded frequently, their hostility toward each other growing throughout their lives. For instance, during the Revolutionary War Morgan was named director general and chief physician of the Continental Army. Morgan struggled in the position and was fired two years later.

Guess who took his place? William Shippen, an appointment that infuriated Morgan.

Shippen hardly fared better, though. He was accused of falsifying mortality reports, neglect of duty, and misuse of hospital funds and supplies and was court-martialed, though later in the 1780 trial he was declared innocent of all charges. He was subsequently given back his position as the army’s medical director, serving for only a short time before resigning his commission.

Enemies ‘Til the End

When College of Philadelphia was renamed University of the State of Pennsylvania in 1780, Shippen was granted a full professorship of anatomy and surgery. Over his career he pioneered midwifery as a separate course in medicine and proved instrumental in the development of medical education in America, helping to establish the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, a society established “to advance the science of medicine and to thereby lessen human misery.” The society continues to operate the famed Mütter Museum.

Morgan likewise enjoyed an outstanding career in medicine. He helped found the American Philosophical Society, founded by Benjamin Franklin to promote “useful knowledge.” Morgan was one of the first members of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia and was active in the Anglican Christ Church at Second and Church Streets.

Morgan eventually faded from practicing as a professor and died of influenza on October 15, 1789. He was 53. Shippen lived considerably longer. He died from an anthrax infection on July 11, 1808, at his home in Germantown, a quaint Philadelphia neighborhood . Shippen was 71.

The two unreservedly brilliant physicians never settled their grievances and died as archenemies.

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