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Artifacts of Penn’s Past All Around


When you’ve been around as long as Penn has, in a city as rich in history as Philadelphia, you’re going to have a hand in many things of great importance (as my colleague Rob Press detailed in his recent two-part series on Alexander Hamilton and his family’s Penn-trained doctor, found here). The formation of the United States of America, the Civil War, and countless medical breakthroughs: Penn has seen and been through it all.

One particular artifact of that history is the statue “The Fugitive’s Story,” sculpted by John Rogers shortly after the Civil War, while the nation’s wounds were still scabbing over. The sculpture depicts a young slave, who recently ran away from the slaveholding South, with her child, telling her story to three men, William Lloyd Garrison, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Henry Ward Beecher, all noted abolitionists.

The statue itself is interesting enough. Garrison, who some see as one of the most radical abolitionists of his day, was the editor of the Liberator, a powerful anti-slavery newspaper. Whittier was a famous poet known for his abolitionist writings and Beecher was a clergyman and the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

Rogers intended his work to be available for the working and middle classes in the 19th century, making his sculptures out of plaster, opposed to bronze or marble, which made it much more affordable. A copy of “The Fugitive’s Story” made its way to Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane (later renamed to the Institute of Pennsylvania Hospital), the hospital’s revolutionary new facility for mental health located out on 44th Street in West Philadelphia.

That alone is a neat bit of history, but the statue has earned a special place right here within in the health system. Thomas Story Kirkbride was Pennsylvania Hospital’s leading voice on mental health care in the mid-19th century and the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane was built around the so-called Kirkbride Plan. He believed that those with mental health issues should not be stigmatized, that their problems were as real as anyone’s, and that a more home-like, comfortable environment is better for treating those with mental ailments.

The Kirkbride Plan was revolutionary in mental health care at the time, and with help from Kirkbride’s book “On the Construction, Organization, and General Arrangements of Hospitals for the Insane with Some Remarks on Insanity and Its Treatment” (brevity maybe wasn’t Kirkbride’s strong suit), it was rolled out across the nation, influencing the construction of several other similar institutions.

At the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane, Rogers’ statue played a part in making the mental health facility a bit more like home, more peaceful and warm than the sterile hospital environment which was typical at the time.

The facility closed its doors in 1997 (it was then called the Institute of Pennsylvania Hospital), but the statue lives on at the top of the stairs on the second floor of Pennsylvania Hospital’s Pine Building, directly across from its Historic Medical Library. Both are unique reminders of the hospital’s long and important history in medicine, echoes from the past that continue to ring out.

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