8 June 2023

The History of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia



The College of Physicians of Philadelphia is a meaningful and fascinating page in the city’s history. It was opened in the 18th century and continues to this day. This is one of the oldest medical schools in the United States. According to its founders, it was established to develop medicine and reduce human suffering. Read more at iphiladelphia.

In over 230 years of its existence, the College defined professional standards that were adopted worldwide. It’s also home to the most famous medical library and museum.

Where Did the Medical Society Start?

The establishment of the famous Philadelphia medical school and society dates back to the distant 18th century. To be more precise, the society was founded in 1787. Back then, 24 doctors from all over the city joined forces to develop medical science together. This was the birth of one of the most esteemed medical schools in the U.S. From the very beginning, the founders planned to research into diseases peculiar to the United States and ways to treat them. 

Multiple prominent physicians and scientists stood at the roots of the College. Many of them have been forever imprinted in the history of U.S. medicine. Some of their works garnered global renown and completely revolutionized the way we think about medical science. John Morgan, William Shippen, Jr, Benjamin Rush, John Redman, Benjamin Say, Adam Kuhn and Benjamin Duffield are just a few prominent names to mention. 

They wanted to see Philadelphia medicine as similar to that of Great Britain. At the time, the Royal College of Physicians had existed in London and Edinburgh for centuries. Benjamin Rush proposed to create something of the kind and yet different.

John Redman. Image source:  archives.upenn.edu

Philadelphia’s scientists sought to create an equally prestigious institution that would also contribute to medical research on a global scale. Their efforts were successful. On January 2, 1787, the new society of medics held its first meeting.

John Redman became the mentor of the new medical college and its first president. Redman spent some time in Europe, where he studied medicine in Paris and Edinburgh. After returning to America, he settled in Philadelphia. He mentored Benjamin Rush, another founder of the medical society. Redman was interested in heroic medicine. He did research on race origins. In particular, he was very interested in Native Americans and their health. Redman was especially preoccupied with the reasons why they had a higher mortality rate compared to people of other ethnicities.

Among other founding members was John Morgan who is known as the founder of public medical education in the country. John Morris, a member of the American Philosophical Society, was another notable participant.

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The initial founders were 24 but there were others. Caspar Wistar, John Anderson Strong, Joseph Melick Leidy, Arthur L. Kaplan and Silas Weir Mitchell, to name a few. All these people are from different eras and centuries. However, they all have something in common: medicine and their work for the society.

The College of Physicians of Philadelphia is well-respected among other institutions dedicated to medicine and healthcare. It’s important not only as an educational body but also as an establishment of national and international value. 

The Construction of the Premises

At first, the college did not have its own premises. They had to rent a room at the American Philosophical Society building to house their meetings and the expanded collection of medical books. Only in the mid-19th century did the first permanent building rose on the corner of 13th and Locust Streets. This was largely due to the funding offered by surgeon Thomas Dent Mütter. Philadelphia has an entire museum dedicated to Mütter’s surgical artifacts that he collected throughout his life. The museum’s collection includes about 25.000 exhibits! 

Image source: npg.si.edu

During the American Civil War, the College of Physicians of Philadelphia temporarily ceased its operation. Most of the scientists and physician professors volunteered for the front. After the war, the College was reopened. At the start of the 20th century, it moved to a larger residence on the corner of Ludlow and 22nd Streets. This wasn’t the first or the last time the medical society changed quarters.

In 1791, it operated on the second floor of the American Philosophical Society at Chestnut and 5th Streets. In the mid-19th century, it moved twice. Permanent premises had been an acute issue for years. This is why when the management was once again considering options for the next move, Thomas Mütter offered his help. He donated $30.000 and the pathology literature he owned. Shortly after this, the construction of the new building began. 

Image source: wikipedia.org  

Philadelphia architect James Hamilton Windrim specialized in public buildings. Many of his works are now on the National Register of Historic Places and the list of National Historic Landmarks. It was he who designed the building that would house the College. The two-story premises opened doors in 1863. 22 years later, it was expanded by the addition of a 3rd story. Its interior vaguely resembled the style of a gentleman’s club.

Early in the 20th century, Scottish-American industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie funded the construction of the College library and museum. The cornerstone was laid in 1908. A year later, the medical society members held a building dedication ceremony. The construction was completed the same year. The building’s shape and exterior were inspired by the Royal College of Physicians in London. 

Architectural Style

Among other premises, the main building accommodates the library and museum. It has 2 stories and 3 facades — the west, north and south. The main (west) one is the most beautiful by far: it faces 22nd Street. As for the interior, the College is an excellent example of Beaux-Arts.

Image source: www.faithandlibertytrail.org 

The Beaux-Arts style originated historically during the Second French Empire. It’s defined by the eclectic use of historical replicas, highly detailed ornamentation and at the same time, symmetry. The Grand Opera House in Paris is probably the most famous building bearing this style.

Image source: www.flickr.com 

Philadelphia’s Largest Medical Library

The College Library was founded shortly after the emergence of the society itself. In 1788, it opened its doors to those who dedicated their lives to medicine. Today, it’s the largest medical library in the city, and one of the oldest, being 235 years old. Thanks to the members who donated their own books, Philadelphia now has a considerable collection of medical literature. 

Image source: eventsatcpp.org

For some time, it served as a regional library. For a long while, it supplied medical knowledge to many institutions and hospitals in the city and beyond. Thanks to charitable donations from scholars, it kept expanding year by year.

The library’s collection includes rare books, valuable collections of the 19th and 20th centuries and manuscripts. All of these belong both to the College and other medical institutions in the city. Student works, atlases, notebooks and papers make fascinating exhibits. The library is open three days a week by appointment. 

The Mütter Museum

In 1858, Thomas Mütter created a museum for medical research at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Museums like this were an integral part of medical education. However, not every town has them. After Mütter’s retirement, a collection of anatomical and pathology specimens was donated to the museum. These include, for example, Siamese twins, brain portions of Charles Julius Guiteau, who killed U.S. President James Garfield and many other curiosities. 

Image source: philadelphiaencyclopedia.org

When Mütter made a generous donation of $30.000, he had a condition. He asked for the College building to be fireproof. The Thomas Mütter Museum has been actively expanding over the years. It impressed and continues to impress visitors with its achievements and amazing collections. This is one of the places in Philadelphia that causes a stir. Our writers will tell you a little more about it in our next articles.

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