Inside Pennsylvania Hospital’s Little Seen Original Building

April 7, 2016 | by Chandra Lampreich


| Photo: Chandra

America’s oldest surgical amphitheater served as an operating room from 1804 through the late 1860s | Photo: Chandra Lampreich

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.

| Photo: Chandra Lampreich

The vast collection of historic medical texts in the hospital’s medical library, the oldest in the United States, are kept safe by temperature and humidity control | Photo: Chandra Lampreich

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.











About the Author

Chandra Lampreich Chandra Lampreich became interested in photography in high school, and then continued her training at Antonelli Institute where she received an associates degree in photography. She specializes in architecture photography, and has a passion for shooting old, dilapidated buildings. Her photographs can be seen on Flickr here.


  1. Jim Clark says:

    Wonderful pictures. It is a very beautiful building, I love the woodwork. Thank you Chandra.

  2. Marlies Singh says:

    Both my children were born at Pennsylvania Hospital, and I always wished for a tour of the historical building. Thank you for making it happen!

  3. kdlkdkld says:

    Always wanted to tour this building.

    1. Tom says:

      The building is open to the public and can be toured freely.

  4. pete hart says:

    i had surgery at the hospital,major surgery…but we were able to visit the amphitheater and library by ourselves on a quiet weekday morning…it was like being transported back in time…really cool

  5. jim Swank says:

    I was an Operating Room Technician 1959-63 in the “new” Operating Room (built 1898, corner of 8th and Spruce Streets. I started out as an orderly. A key function was moving patients on stretchers (bicycle wheels on the back an smaller swinging steerable wheels on the front). At that time the original Pine Street buildings housed Wards One and Two (lower and upper floors on the East side) for those who could pay little, and public welfare cases. Maybe 40 beds per floor. The West side was private rooms, called the Pine Street Extension, both lower and upper floors. The old lobby with it’s beautiful marble stairways and plaques honoring famous doctors of the past was truly impressive, as it is today. The second floor of the center building was set aside for the doctor’s lounge, little used. As I recall the dome of the “old” operating room was still glassed in all around. What a fine job the restoration group has done to re purpose this historic buildings. A point, the basements was made up of small arched roofed rooms where the incurable and insane were looked after. “Pennsy” was a great place to work for a 17 year old kid from 35th Street. Fond memories. Question? Is the awesomely large painting by Dr. Rush still in the 8th Street lobby?

  6. Jim Swank says:

    Pennsy has a second major claim to medical history. On April 27, 1887, Dr. George Morton, who had lost both his son and brother to appendicitis, acted quickly when a 26 year old wallpaper hanger with a long history of acute, reoccurring appendicitis was admitted. Under anesthesia and using sterile instruments, drapes and the newly introduced surgeons rubber gloves he quickly opened the abdomen removed the infected appendix. The man survived, the first ever appendectomy. No surgeon before Morton would operate until the appendix ruptured, the abdomen was filled with puss and all died.

  7. Frank Hoeber says:

    This is one of so many great preservation triumphs that grace Philadelphia. I “discovered” the operating theater around 1974 when I just walked into the unlocked front door of the Pine building and wandered freely up the grand stairs and through the ancient rooms. The operating theater was crumbling, with plaster all over the benches and floor and gaping holes in the lath. It wouldn’t be repaired for many years after that. I found a tiny staircase, unlocked, that led up and around the dome to emerge on the roof by the skylight. Even in that dreadfully decrepit condition the great space devoted to instructing surgeons was imposing. I have returned with visitors dozens of times over the last 40 years and still find this building one of the great spaces in our city. Visitors should not miss the lovely statue of William Penn on the front lawn. When I first saw it, the features were nearly obliterated with more than 50 coats of black enamel paint. Lovingly cleaned years ago, the detail of the pewter sculpture is remarkable. You can easily read the scroll in Penn’s hand, which contains his 1702 Charter of Privileges, establishing religious liberty in Pennsylvania and foreshadowing the First Amendment to the US Constitution.


    I was born in this Hospital April 2, 1947. Enjoyed the photo tour. Beautiful Hospital and founded by Ben Franklin, learn something new everyday.

    1. Michele E. Gurin says:

      Hi Charles, i was born there on September18,1946. Also enjoyed the photo tour.

  9. Geraldine Reigle says:

    I was born in this Hospital on October 16, 1943. I would love to tour this hospital. Is it open to the public daily for a walk through?

  10. Michele E. Gurin says:

    Wondering what your Doctors name was and if we could have been delivered by the same Doctor.

  11. I trained at Pennsylvania Hospital during the 60’s. It did not look like your pictures at that time. So very happy it has been fixed up. interns slept in the original or during their shift.

    1. Ailene N. Eplan says:

      Oringinal operaating room

    2. Jim says:

      Did you work with Dr. Clarence C. Briscoe in the 60’s?

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