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Founders . . . and Feuders

The names are often linked: John Morgan and William Shippen Jr. They were the first two professors of medicine in the College of Philadelphia in 1765, the beginnings of what would become the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school. Today’s Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania includes the Founders’ Pavilion -- notably a plural possessive. Both Morgan and Shippen earned their medical degrees from the University of Edinburgh, one of the leading institutions of its day, and both sought to learn from European schools and medical practitioners before returning to the American colonies. Both were praised by one of Philadelphia’s most important citizens, Benjamin Franklin. 

William Shippen
William Shippen Jr., MD

In a letter of recommendation, Franklin described Shippen as “an ingenious worthy young Man.” In similar fashion, he described Morgan as “a young gentleman of Philadelphia whom I have long known and greatly esteem.” Both of these young physicians, delivering the early lectures in their respective areas of expertise, were essential for the success of the new medical school. 

Yet by the time the school was established, Morgan and Shippen were hardly on speaking terms. And things only got worse from that point. According to Stanley Finger, PhD, author of Doctor Franklin’s Medicine (2006), when Shippen headed to Edinburgh, “he was knowledgeable about surgery, pathology, and midwifery. He also had letters of recommendation from Franklin and the idea of an American medical school firmly planted in his head.” In 1760, Finger continues, when Franklin, Shippen, and Morgan were in London, they exchanged ideas about the future of American medical education with John Fothergill, a prominent English physician.

John Morgan
John Morgan, MD


For his part, Morgan was developing plans for the first American medical school before he returned to Philadelphia. Unlike Shippen, however, he envisioned a school associated with an institution of higher learning, as was the case in Edinburgh. Shippen’s idea was closer to the London model of a hospital-based school. When Shippen returned to Philadelphia in 1762, he inaugurated a series of lectures on anatomy, surgery, and the practice of midwifery. His lectures on anatomy were the first ever delivered in America and incorporated anatomical drawings and casts made by Jan Van Rymsdyk, a Dutch painter and engraver highly sought as a medical illustrator.


An Ambitious Plan

Morgan, more of a visionary than Shippen, presented his proposal for a medical school to the trustees of the College of Philadelphia when he returned to the city in 1765. The trustees were persuaded. That May, Morgan delivered his plan at the College’s commencement. It was subsequently published as the justly famous Discourse upon the Institution of Medical Schools in America. His discourse was unabashedly ambitious. On the other hand, Morgan sought to distinguish the physician from the more lowly apothecary or surgeon: their practices were outside the true frame of the more gentlemanly “theory and practice of physick.” According to George W. Corner, in Two Centuries of Medicine: A History of the School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania (1965): “Morgan had disparaged surgery as an unintellectual mechanical art, repugnant to sensitive men. He was apparently willing to leave it to be taught by apprenticeship alone, for he proposed no chair of surgery in the school.”

Surgery was Shippen’s specialty. He was not amused. In a letter to the trustees, Shippen wrote: “I should long since have sought the patronage of the Trustees of the College, but waited to be joined by Dr. Morgan, to whom I first communicated my plan in England, and who promised to unite with me in every scheme we might think necessary for the execution of so important a point.” Nevertheless, he accepted an appointment as the College’s professor of anatomy and surgery. As it turned out, Shippen gave his lectures in his private anatomical rooms near the College; Morgan delivered his on material medica -- the body of collected knowledge about the therapeutic properties of substances used for healing -- in the College’s lecture hall. The arrangement seemed to work, and America’s first medical school was on its way.

The animosity between Morgan and Shippen, however, did not lessen. In fact, it grew worse years later, when both became involved with the new Continental Army in the struggle for independence. Morgan was appointed the Director General and Chief Physician of the army. Two years later, after various intrigues, Morgan was dismissed from his post. In his place, Congress appointed . . . William Shippen. Morgan was convinced that Shippen was behind his troubles, and he had some justification. But that was not the end of it. Like Morgan, Shippen was eventually dismissed as well, in part because of the efforts of Morgan and another pioneer of Penn’s medical school, Benjamin Rush.

It became even more complicated. As the Office of Medical History of the U.S. Army Medical Department puts it, “The specifications against Shippen included ignorance and neglect of his duties, misapplication of hospital supplies and funds, and the rendition of false morbidity and mortality reports. After much correspondence a court-martial was ordered and Shippen appeared before it at Morristown, N. J., on March 15, 1780. The case was not finally settled until August 18, 1780, when Congress passed a motion to the effect, ‘That the court-martial having acquitted the said Doctor W. Shippen that he be discharged from arrest.’” Only a few months later, however, the medical department underwent another reorganization by act of Congress, and Shippen was again elected medical director of the army. He served a few months before resigning.


Cameos in a Novel

It sounds rather like the stuff of fiction -- and an alumnus of Penn’s School of Medicine had the idea of using the stormy relationship of Morgan and Shippen as a kind of framework for a novel. Arnold M. Ludwig, MD 1958, an emeritus professor of psychiatry at the University of Kentucky and author of several books of nonfiction and fiction, published Mount Aesculapius in 2005. It is a novel about the fictional Benjamin Franklin School of Medicine, which traces its origins to the University of Pennsylvania and to the bitter rivalry between Morgan and Shippen. In the novel’s prologue, the purported modern-day “author” writes: “I cannot help but wonder if a curse was visited upon our institution, dooming us to repeat the past. When an institution is born in crisis, as was ours, this must leave its mark on the very fabric of the place. . . .” Further, he wonders whether the school’s current troubles are “the morbid legacy of two physicians who lived more than two centuries ago.” Morgan and Shippen appear as themselves in the prologue and are quoted, and at one point Morgan’s actions in the founding of the medical school are characterized as a “betrayal.” Well, if a fervent admirer of Morgan had written the novel, perhaps the account would be somewhat different.

Despite their differences -- and despite what happened later during the Revolutionary War -- these two extremely talented physicians were both there at the birth of the first medical school in America. But Morgan’s name comes first. And larger!


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