8 June 2023

Pennsylvania Hospital: The History of the Oldest Medical Institution in Philadelphia



If you walk through Philly’s Center City, you’ll hardly miss the historical building of Penn Medicine. The city’s oldest medical institution. It’s one of the first public hospitals in the United States. An important national landmark with a rich historical past dating back to the 18th century. Read more at iphiladelphia.

History and Start of Construction of the Medical Institution

The Hospital of Pennsylvania is one of the oldest in Philadelphia and the U.S. It was founded 25 years before the start of the U.S. War of Independence. The idea of its construction belongs to Dr. Thomas Bond. However, there are no less important figures that stood at its roots. One of the country’s Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Stretch were among them. 

Benjamin Franklin. Image source: www.nbcnews.com 

According to Bond, the new medical institution was supposed to provide free medical care to all those in need and the poor. Funding was provided by donations from the city’s residents according to a bill passed in 1750. A year later, a plot of land was allocated for the construction of a new hospital. This benefactor was Mathias Koplin.

Thanks to him, the first and temporary emergency medical care building was soon opened in Philadelphia. It was located on the former High Street, now Market Street. That same year, the Pennsylvania legislature issued a charter establishing a hospital to help the poor, sick and mentally ill. The institution had permanent funding thanks to influential local families. 

Pennsylvania Hospital, William Strickland, 1755. Image source: www.brynmawr.edu 

The Quaker widow Elizabeth Gardner became the hospital’s first superintendent. This first building didn’t last long. However, it established the basis for what would later become Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia. 

Who Were the Creators of the Hospital as We Know It?

The creation of the new medical institution was a joint effort of many prominent Philadelphia citizens. One of the main founders of Pennsylvania Hospital was Thomas Stretch. He was a clockmaker and the first governor of the Schuylkill colony, the oldest angling club in the country. In 1755, a local newspaper named him one of the largest contributors to the hospital’s foundation. Along with Benjamin Franklin, he and his family provided half of the initial capital for the medical institution’s fund.

Thoman Stretch. Image source: wikipedia.org

The American architect Samuel Rhoads also made a substantial contribution by designing the new hospital building. He started working on his project in the 1750s. First, he designed the east wing and later the west wing. The additional open structure designed by Rhoads was built after his death in 1794. Interestingly, the architect was a member of the Pennsylvania Hospital’s board of managers and was even elected mayor in 1774. 

The Construction of the Permanent Premises  

The cornerstone for the Pennsylvania Hospital’s east wing designed by Samuel Rhoads was laid in 1755 at Pine and 8th Streets. Even before the construction was completed, the permanent medical facility began to receive its first patients. They were people transferred from the temporary hospital.

Over time, the right wing expanded. At the end of the 18th century, the left wing and an additional open building were constructed. For a construction as large-scale as this, the hospital’s founders acquired additional land plots.

Image source: www.loc.gov 

In a fairly short time, this institution has managed to gain a reputation for medical achievements and innovative implementations. An advanced maternity care system was one of them. From the very beginning of its existence, the Pennsylvania Hospital has also been an educational institution.

It’s credited with many accomplishments and innovations in various fields of medicine. In the 19th century, these walls witnessed the development of a philosophy of treatment for the mentally ill. It was done under the leadership of Thomas Story Kirkbride, a physician and the main founder of the Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions for the Insane. It was this philosophy that has become a golden standard all over the world. Its practical components are still widely applied.

Thomas Story Kirkbride. Image source: www.researchgate.net 

In 1774, the hospital’s administration suggested creating a garden around the building. It was supposed to provide doctors with the necessary ingredients and herbs to create medicines. The idea was immediately approved but unfortunately, it wasn’t implemented until two centuries later due to financial difficulties.

In 1780, the hospital acquired an early American fire engine with a hand pump to prevent fires on its premises. It has been preserved to this day. 

Penn Medicine During Wartime

During the American Civil War, the Spanish-American War and the two world wars, the hospital served as an infirmary for treating wounded soldiers. Regardless of which side they fought on, patients with various degrees of injury were brought here. It was an important center for emergency medical care and treatment of people injured in combat. 

Image source: www.abebooks.com 

For example, during the American Revolution, the hospital’s staff tended both to American and British soldiers.

What Makes It One of the Best Hospitals in the U.S.?

In the 1950s, Pennsylvania Hospital was recognized as one of the best in the country. Along with the maternity department, it opened new departments for coronary care, intensive care, oncology, urology and many others.

In the late 20th century, the medical institution decided to merge the Pennsylvania Hospital with the University of Pennsylvania Health System. It’s been providing emergency medical care and innovative treatment for over 270 years now. 

Image source: wikidata.org

The hospital has been a major innovator not only in terms of treatment methods but also in terms of medical research. It happens right here, within the historic building walls. Every year, the hospital delivers over 4.000.000 babies and treats over 25.000.000 patients.

The building itself is a pretty good example of federal and colonial architecture. It’s located in the historic neighborhood of Society Hill in Philadelphia. The hospital has the same character as two centuries ago. And this is all thanks to its founders and rich historical past. 

The First Medical Library, Oldest Surgical Amphitheater and Medicinal Garden: Legacy to Impress

The Pine Building of the Hospital of Pennsylvania is home to the first surgical amphitheater and medical library in the United States. Of course, the medical institution continues to operate in its core area and provide care to patients. However, it’s still an important historical landmark in Philadelphia and in the country. The glorious past of Americans is carefully preserved within these walls.   

Image source: www.pennmedicine.org 

The history of the first medical library began in the 18th century at the Pennsylvania Hospital. It all started when John Fothergill, an English physician and philanthropist, donated a book to the young medical institution. A century later, the library was recognized as the first and most important medical library in the United States. At the time, its collection included about 9.000 books. These were very rare and unique editions. Now it includes over 13.000 volumes. 

Image source: billypenn.com

The surgical amphitheater is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating rooms within the walls of this hospital. One of the oldest surgical rooms of its kind, the amphitheater takes the top floor. It has 180 seats and can accommodate up to 300 people. Image source: www.pennmedicine.org 

In 1976, an idea that was born centuries ago finally came to fruition. A long-planned garden was made on the grounds of the Pennsylvania Hospital. It’s in front of the western wing of the medical institution. As originally conceived, the garden includes medicinal plants that were once used to treat various diseases and injuries: cardiovascular issues, wound cleaning, digestion improvement, etc.