Medical History in Philadelphia

April 1, 2022

Philadelphia has a passion and appreciation for science and medicine because it is part of our history as home of the first hospital, medical school, women’s medical school, children’s hospital, medical society, medical library, college of pharmacy, first biomedical research institution and so much more.

5 Philadelphia Medical History Spots to Explore:

Pennsylvania Hospital

800 Spruce Street

The oldest existing surgical amphitheater in North America is located on the third floor of the historic Pine Building at Pennsylvania Hospital, in use from 1804-1868. Photo by R. Bloom for PHLCVB.

The nation’s first hospital was founded by Benjamin Franklin and Dr. Thomas Bond in 1751, for “relief of the sick poor” of Philadelphia. The modern hospital offers guided tours which allow you to see the country’s oldest existing operating theater where patients were “sedated” with alcohol, laudanum or a hit to the head. The surgical amphitheater is on the top floor of the Pine Building, one of the finest examples of Colonial and Federal period architecture, in continuous use since 1755. Art on display in the historic building includes Benjamin West’s 1817 “Christ Healing the Sick in the Temple” and works by Thomas Eakins and Thomas Sully.

The Mütter Museum/College of Physicians of Philadelphia

19 S. 22nd Street

mutter museum
Examine a collection of fascinating scientific discoveries about the human body with wax models, antique medical equipment, and anatomical and pathological specimens at the Mütter Museum. Photo by K. Huff for PHLCVB.

The College of Physicians of Philadelphia was founded in 1787, making it one of the country’s oldest professional medical associations. The Mütter Museum contains a collection of more than 25,000 medical “curiosities” including a tumor removed from President Grover Cleveland’s jaw, the conjoined liver of “Siamese” twins Chang and Eng, slivers of Einstein’s brain, the “Soap Lady” and one of John Wilkes Booth’s vertabrae.

Hill-Physick House

321 S. 4th Street

Physick House photo by K. Huff for PHLCVB.

Dr. Phillip Syng Physick lived in and had an office in this building in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Among Physick’s patients were President Andrew Jackson, Chief Justice John Marshall and Dolley Todd Madison. The house was converted to a museum in the 1970s. Among the items on display are Physick’s surgical tools, including blood letting instruments, stomach pumps and tubes to remove kidney stones. The house is said to be haunted. Tours are offered of the museum and garden.

Wills Eye Hospital

840 Walnut Street

Wills Eye Hospital photo by S. Spitzer.

The first U.S. medical facility dedicated to the treatment of eyes, Wills Eye Hospital was created through an endowment by Quaker merchant James Wills, established in 1832. The world-renowned institute was instrumental in establishing opthalmology as its own branch of medicine in the United States, created the first residency program in the country, and pioneered many techniques for the prevention and treatment of eye disease.

Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic) at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway

Thomas Eakins (American, 1844 – 1916), Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic), 1875. Oil on canvas, 96 x 78 ½ inches. Gift of the Alumni Association to Jefferson Medical College in 1878 and purchased by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2007 with the generous support of more than 3,400 donors. Photo by K. Huff for PHLCVB.

Thomas Eakins was one of the finest realist painters of his time and master of the art of the human figure. A lifelong Philadelphia resident, he painted portraits and scenes of sporting and medical events including “Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic)” in 1875. The subject is the world-famous surgeon and teacher in Jefferson Medical College’s surgical amphitheater leading a clinic of five doctors operating on a patient. The depiction was shocking and frightening to those who saw it for the first time but is now recognized as one of the greatest American paintings, on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

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