Pennsylvania Hospital recently celebrated its 267th birthday, but even if you weren’t able to make it to the Great Court for cake, there’s still time to enjoy a slice of history! Given that PAH was the nation’s first hospital, there truly are numerous gems of history throughout the hospital waiting to be explored – from the gardens, to the furniture, to the... weather records?
“The meteorological records are immensely interesting because they touch on some many interesting facets of life between 1822 and 1922,” said Stacey C. Peeples, MA, curator and lead archivist of the hospital’s historic collections. “They describe the very obvious – how much rain or snow, if it was sunny or windy – but they also have interesting notes about things going on in society. It really puts you in the moment, demonstrating what was important to this person, at this particular moment in time. They are amazing records, and we are so fortunate to have them preserved.”
Each of the record books features monthly charts populated with meteorological data – maximum and minimum temperatures, dew points and barometer readings (meticulously recorded three times a day each), wind speeds and rainfall totals, cloud characteristics, descriptions of the day’s “atmospheric variations,” and other general remarks. Aside from synthesizing and analyzing the month’s data – often digging into any deviations from average temperatures – some months are succinctly summed up in a few words at the bottom of the page (“A very fine September”), while others feature detailed, often rather poetic paragraphs that provide a clear image of the evolution of both the hospital and the city, as well as the author’s view of the scope of their role.
Many of the spring and summer entries feature an botanical section listing exact dates that the hospital’s flowers and plants first appeared for the season – rose, crocus, hyacinth, japonica, sasanqua, lilac, and wisteria blooms, and bird cherry, horse chestnut, and hawthorn trees. The poor dahlias frequently are mentioned as annual victims of lingering winter frost. Others reference regional events like an appearance of “brilliant meteoric phenomena” (November 1833), a tornado hitting Wilmington, Delaware (June 1846), a “gale on the Lakes” that resulted in sixteen deaths on Lake Erie (November 1846), lightning striking a church (July 1847), and a deadly fire at the American Theatre on Walnut Street (June 1867).
Particularly interesting are the records kept during the Civil War. In July of 1862, a scribbled note underneath calculations of mean temperatures and dew points mentions, “The first instalment [sic] of soldiers arrived from the war today – 64 men.” The next summer, they write, “The City in great alarm from the approach of the rebels on the last days of the month. The citizens determined to make a vigorous defense” (June 1863), and note July’s “Great battle of Gettysburg, in which Lee’s rebel army was defeated by the Army of the Potomac under Gen. Meade.”
In April 1865, the records shift abruptly from discussing the magnolia trees, forsythia, and pears in bloom, to General Lee’s surrender (which was met with “great joy and excitement”), Lincoln’s assassination (“city in mourning — business suspended”), and the arrival of his funeral train in Philadelphia (“Long lines of people on Chestnut St. moving to Independence Hall to take a last look at our beloved President”).
Page after page offers something for everyone, whether you’re a meteorologist interested in weather patterns, a history buff seeking commentary from a primary source, or a staff member looking for more reasons to love your workplace. Happy Birthday, PAH, and thanks for providing so many interesting historical tidbits, even in the most unlikely places!
Some additional highlights:
February 27, 1848: “On this day died Hugh Montgomery, our faithful watchman who had been employed in the House nearly 20 years and whose death was deeply regretted by all who knew him. Poor Hugh! He died of Typhus Fever.”
December 23, 1848: “The trees are magnificent this morning. Being sheeted [sic] with the purest chrystals [sic] & glittering & sparkling in the morning sun. ‘And every shrub, and every blade of grass / And every pointed thorn seem’d wrought in glass / In pearls & rubies rich the hawthorns show / While through the ice the crimson berries glow.’”
June 1866: “The roses bloomed well, and for the most part opened better than usual. Many blackbirds reared their young in our trees and as many as 16 or 20 have been counted on the lawn at one time. Catbirds, orioles, thrushes, [...] robins abound.”
October 25, 1870: “A beautiful display, of auroral lights, occurred during the evening. It began at about six o’clock, and formed two arches, one across the northern horizon, of a pale opaque color, and one across the middle sky of a beautiful deep crimson color. The aurora lost brilliancy soon after 9 o’clock untill [sic] about midnight, when the spears and undulations of light again shot upward, and the beautiful phenomenon was renewed, its colours having been brighter, but more delicate.”