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John Morgan: in Europe and at Home

John MorganJohn Morgan conquered Europe. The son of a Philadelphia shopkeeper, Morgan did not have the advantages of his former schoolmate and friend and future colleague at the newly established medical school at the College of Philadelphia, William Shippen Jr. Shippen was a great-grandson of a Philadelphia mayor and a nephew of the Chief Justice of Pennsylvania. Shippen’s father was a successful physician, and it seemed a foregone conclusion that the younger Shippen would finish his medical education abroad. But at the University of Edinburgh, in England, and on the continent, Morgan appeared to make a much greater impression than Shippen and collected a packet of honors from different countries.

Morgan’s path to the medical school at the University of Edinburgh was more circuitous than Shippen’s. Morgan was apprenticed to Dr. John Redman in Philadelphia. Even while thus occupied, George W. Corner’s Two Centuries of Medicine tells us, Morgan “somehow found time to serve more than a year as apothecary to the Pennsylvania Hospital, whose library of 50 volumes he catalogued, and, also, to attend classes at the College of Philadelphia. . . .” In addition, Morgan became a regimental surgeon with the Pennsylvania Militia and saw active service in the French and Indian War. So he had a varied background by the time he arrived in Europe. And once there, he made every moment count.

At Edinburgh, Morgan showed brilliance in his medical courses -- and also attended lectures on rhetoric and belles lettres. Corner quotes from a letter by another Philadelphian at Edinburgh, Samuel Powel: “Dr. Morgan has graduated with such reputation as few, if any, have ever obtained.” Powel joined Morgan in Antwerp and stayed with him for a while in Paris. But Morgan was doing more than enjoying the culture of Paris. He delivered two presentations at the Royal Academy of Surgeons -- one on the formation of pus, on which he wrote his thesis at Edinburgh -- and was made a Correspondent of the French Academy.

Next, Morgan and Powel arrived in Leghorn (Livorno), Italy, on the same day that the Duke of York, brother to George III, arrived with his entourage. The Americans were invited to join the duke’s party. As Corner puts it, “Morgan’s social address, intelligence, and charm won him an extraordinary opportunity to move in high society.” In Florence and Rome, it was much the same. In Rome, he was elected a member of the Arcadians, a literary society whose members included several noble and distinguished Englishmen.

The Founder’s Itinerary

In May, during the Perelman School’s annual Medical Alumni Weekend, one of the popular panels was “Inspiring History: The Founder’s Itinerary.” It brought together representatives from three of the major medical institutions and cities that John Morgan visited during his years in Europe: Edinburgh, London, and Padua, Italy. Victor A. Ferrari, MD 1986, a professor of medicine and radiology at Penn Medicine, was the session’s moderator. He noted that Morgan also visited Lake Geneva, where Voltaire was living. At that time, Ferrari said, Morgan was in effect “the most famous American physician in the world!”

He was also, in more modern terms, an expert networker. Another stop on Morgan’s tour of Europe was Padua, home of a highly regarded medical school that was a center for dissection. There, he met with the man known as the father of modern anatomy, Giovanni Morgagni. Morgan was impressed by the school’s emphasis on pathology, and in his famous Discourse upon the Institution of Medical Schools in America, he noted how essential pathology was -- linking the causes and effects of disease. In fact, Gaetano Thiene, MD, one of the speakers at the “Inspiring History” panel, asserted that even some phrasing of Morgagni’s found its way into Morgan’s Discourse.

Thiene, professor of pathology at the University of Padua, also referred to an entry in Morgan’s diary about his visit with the elderly Morgagni: “He received me with the greatest politeness imaginable.” The 82-year-old Paduan was still “alert.” The scholars exchanged gifts as well, and Thiene noted that a copy of Morgan’s thesis on pus is still in the Padua collection.

It is no surprise that London, with its cultural institutions and its hospitals, was another irresistible attraction for people like Morgan. “The London Experience” was the topic of Linda Luxon, a professor in neuro-otology at University College London and treasurer of the Royal College of Physicians. William Fothergill, who earned his medical degree at the University of Edinburgh, settled in London. He met and hosted both Morgan and William Shippen, as well as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Bond, the founder of Pennsylvania Hospital, and Benjamin Rush. Another prominent Londoner at the time was William Hunter, who with his brother John taught anatomy and dissection there. Shippen enrolled in their course. Morgan, Luxon noted, presented his thesis on pus to William Hunter. While in London, Morgan was put up for election as a Fellow of the Royal Society by Fothergill and other sponsors. As Corner explains, it was “a high honor indeed for a man of 30 years whose only qualifications were a brilliant personality and a doctoral thesis.” He was indeed elected. Morgan had also been elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh and a Licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians of London. According to Corner, Morgan was also named a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, the higher designation; but Luxon, the current treasurer of the College, said that would not have been possible, because at that time only graduates of Oxford and Cambridge could be named Fellows.

The Native Son Returns

Even so, by the time Morgan returned to Philadelphia, he was laden with honors. The trustees of the College of Philadelphia must have been very impressed by their graduate’s success in Europe – and ready to listen to his ambitious plans for a medical school in their city.

In his Discourse, Morgan shrewdly touched on the significance of medicine for the city’s health: “The increasing number of inhabitants demands an increase of those who exercise the profession of Medicine and Surgery, and ought to be an argument with all of us, who regard either the present or future advantages of the country, to attend seriously to the importance of the subject.” In addition, he noted that “Some there are indeed, and not a few, who cannot by any means afford the expense of crossing the Atlantic, to prosecute their studies abroad. The proposed institution will therefore prove highly beneficial to every class of student in Medicine.” While no doubt helping the city’s economy.

And a little more sweet talk: “The city, so large, in such a thriving state, and so extremely beautiful and pleasant in its situation, as well as so nearly central to all the colonies on the continent, has peculiar advantages in respect to the resort of students; which added to the advantage of the college, hospital, and the different courses of lectures, could not fail of bringing a concourse of strangers to this place.” Strangers, as in students from elsewhere. As we see 250 years later, those words were prophetic.

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