Walking around the Pennsylvania Hospital at 800 Spruce Street is like strolling the halls of a magnificent church devoted to the worship of science and medicine. The hospital celebrates its 265th anniversary in 2016. On May 5th, Young Friends of the Preservation Alliance will host their 3rd annual fundraiser, “In With The Old,” with tours of the historic Pennsylvania Hospital Great Court, surgical amphitheater, and medical library inside the Pine Building, affording a rare look inside this National Historic Landmark.
Founded in 1751 by Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Bond, it was the first medical hospital and home to the first surgical amphitheater and medical library in the United States. A temporary building was opened in 1752 on High (now Market) Street for the treatment of the sick and mentally ill. The Quakers, who stressed the importance of public facilities in the city, funded much of the construction of the site and its maintenance. Elizabeth Gardner, a Quaker widow, was appointed matron of the new facility. The story of the Good Samaritan was chosen as the official seal of the hospital, “Take Care of Him and I Will Repay Thee.”
The cornerstone of the east wing, designed by architect Samuel Rhoads, was laid in 1755 at what would become the hospital’s permanent location at 8th and Spruce Streets, with the first patients being admitted to the the following year. The site continued to grow, with the west wing completed in 1796 and the center wing completed in 1804. Following the construction of the center wing, the surgical amphitheater, made famous by Doctor Philip Syng Physick, the father of American surgery, opened. Physick performed operations and gave lectures there. Since there was no electricity, surgeries were performed on sunny days between the hours 11AM and 2PM. The amphitheater sat up to 180 people, but could fit up to 300 standing during surgical operations.
In 1762, the first book was donated to the hospital’s medical library. Eight-five years later, the library was later designated by the American Medical Association as the first and most important medical library. Its collection currently holds over 13,000 volumes dating back to the 15th century and is the nation’s most complete collection of medical books published between 1750 and 1850. The library includes medical and scientific volumes as well as books on natural history and several incunabula books dating back to 1483.
To provide physicians with ingredients for their prescribed medications, the Board of Managers first proposed the Physic Garden in 1774. Although the idea was approved, financial circumstances intervened and the project was delayed for two centuries. The planting of the garden was the bicentennial project of the Philadelphia Committee of the Garden Club of America and the Friends of Pennsylvania Hospital in 1976. The garden, located in front of the west wing, had plants used for medicines in the 18th century for cleansing wounds, relieving toothaches and indigestion however it now provides a more spiritual kind of healing for patients and visitors to sit and unwind.
The hospital gained a reputation as a center of innovation, particularly for its advanced and humane facilities for mentally ill patients. In 1803, doctors established the first recognized specialty of the hospital, the “lying in” department, for maternity patients.
A few decades later, in 1841, as psychiatric patients began to outnumber the physically ill two to one, a large farm along the Mill Creek was purchased for the Institute of Pennsylvania Hospital. One of the original founders of the Association of Medical Superintendents of Institutions for the Insane, Thomas Story Kirkbride, was appointed superintendent of the new hospital. Doctor Kirkbride devoted his life’s work to the creation new, more humane medical treatment for those suffering from acute psychiatric conditions and intellectual disabilities
During the Civil War 124 casualties were brought to the wards Pennsylvania Hospital for special treatment. Close to 300 soldiers wounded in Spanish American War were admitted to the hospital, and during World Wars I and II units from the hospital were sent abroad to treat the wounded.
The hospital would go on to narrow its specialized treatment in the following years, adding sophisticated maternity programs, an intensive care unit for neurological patients, a coronary care unit, an orthopedic institute, a diabetes center, a hospice, specialized units in oncology and urology, and broadened surgical programs.
Preservation and restoration of the Pine Building was completed in 2012. The building is used today for medical offices, scholarly research, and conference rooms.
A look inside the halls of Pennsylvania Hospital. Photographs by Chandra Lampreich.