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Unexpected Finds Bring Fresh Excitement to the Archives

PAH archives

Stacey C. Peeples, MA, typically has a sense of what she’s getting into when she receives new materials to process. As curator and lead archivist of Pennsylvania Hospital’s (PAH) historic collections, she often works with defined groups — a set of photographs taken during World War I, for example, or pieces of early-nineteenth-century correspondence between physicians and the Board of Managers.

Sometimes, though, she opens a basic copy paper box that was left on a shelf and finds an unexpected trove of items. Earlier this spring, one such box was tightly packed with an unsigned floral painting, a pamphlet detailing the life of PAH’s first resident, Jacob Ehrenzeller, a collection of fragile newspaper clippings, and much more. Though this hodgepodge didn’t contain any earth-shattering pieces that fundamentally changed Peeples’ understanding of PAH history, it did remind her that even after her 20 years in the archives, there’s always something new to discover.

pah archives auction
A small card sits inside a plastic bag leaning up against three old books. The card lists the details of a 1959 public auction hosted by the Pennsylvania Hospital Board of Managers.

One of Peeples’ favorite items was a card from 1959 advertising a public auction hosted by PAH and Samuel T. Freeman & Co. Auctioneers — the nation’s first hospital and auction house, respectively. Given that PAH’s expansive historic collections include a fire engine, Benjamin West’s Christ Healing the Sick in the Temple painting, over 13,000 volumes in the Historic Medical Library, and more, it’s strange to think that there was a point in the hospital’s history when leaders would choose to give away items.

However, the Board of Managers didn’t really have a choice. In 1957, the 44th and Market mental health facility — built in 1836 and known colloquially as “Kirkbride’s Hospital” in honor of chief physician and mental health advocate Thomas Story Kirkbride, MD — was closed when the city exercised its right of eminent domain to develop the subway. Before the building was demolished, patients were moved to the new, consolidated Institute of Pennsylvania Hospital at 49th and Market Streets, and community members were invited to purchase the furniture and furnishings from the original building.

“I’d be very interested to know if there’s anybody who bought items from this auction who still have them, or if pieces were passed down through their family!” Peeples said.

pah archives morton memories
Two stacks of paper sit inside an open manila folder. They are transcripts of former Pennsylvania Hospital staff sharing memories about surgeon Dr. Thomas G. Morton.

Among the unassuming papers in the box were transcripts sharing staff members’ memories of Thomas G. Morton, a longtime physician best known for performing the hospital’s first planned appendectomy.

“I also like to give Morton credit as our first archivist. He wrote the book that I consider the Bible of sorts for Pennsylvania Hospital,” Peeples said. “He stumbled upon old records and decided to write a book. He published it in 1895, and I use it as a reference all the time before I consult the original documents.”

Though Morton spent more than 20 years documenting the hospital’s history, the transcripts turn the tables and instead spotlight his contributions. The memories contributed by his contemporaries run the gamut from laudatory remarks to quirky observations, but the themes are consistent. He was celebrated as a pioneering surgeon whose “extensive experience” allowed him to operate “when other surgeons were afraid to venture.” Nurse Mary A. Knabb even noted that one of her “greatest regrets” upon leaving to take a leadership role at another hospital was that “it ended my work with Dr. Morton, who was always gracious and kind to the nurses, and whose work as a surgeon could not be excelled.”


pah archives annual report
An annual report booklet lies open on a table. A large illustration depicts nineteenth-century physician Thomas Story Kirkbride visiting Pennsylvania Hospital in modern times.

Also in the box were copies of PAH’s 227th Annual Report, published in 1978. Though today’s annual reports integrate images and infographics to bring Penn Medicine’s story to life, these types of pieces are traditionally quite dry and heavy on the statistics. However, this report uniquely shares information about the hospital and Institute by imagining that Kirkbride returned for a visit.

Accompanying charming illustrations of the physician touring the grounds nearly a century after his departure are descriptions of the Institute’s services and spaces. Through creative storytelling, the report offers a glimpse into PAH’s modern priorities while tying it back to Kirkbride’s historic commitment to compassionate psychiatric care. For example, the report poses that “he commented that some of the buildings looked like they needed work, and was reassured that such work was already underway,” which offered an innovative way to showcase the “Operation Blueprint” renovations happening at the time.

“It’s really a fascinating way to dive into the highlights,” Peeples said, adding that she’d be thrilled to sit down with Kirkbride, Benjamin Rush, Ben Franklin, and other luminaries of PAH’s past to share how the hospital has grown and get their perspectives on how it could improve even further.

PAH archives photographs

A stack of photographs was also tucked away inside the box, most of which appear to be from the 1950s and feature School of Nursing students. In addition to these images — which offer glimpses into the students’ clinical work and social lives — there was a booklet printed in 1994 that explored how photography became a part of patient care during Kirkbride’s era.

“He was an early adopter of photography, though he didn’t allow patients to be photographed,” Peeples said. “Even in the 1840s, Kirkbride with thinking about privacy; he didn’t want anyone stigmatized for seeking mental health treatment.”

Instead, he used a magic lantern (an early slide projector) as a form of therapy and entertainment for patients with mental illnesses. The booklet explains that Kirkbride was a proponent of keeping patients mentally and physically active, and he believed that nightly events, such as projecting exciting images while guest lecturers spoke on related topics, could help restore patients’ mental health. He forged a partnership with Philadelphian photographers William and Frederick Langenheim and quickly swapped out hand-painted slides for photographic slides. Though his attempts to get patients back to “normal” were flawed, Kirkbride’s enthusiastic support of photography added an early vote of confidence to the potential of a then-new way of documenting the world.

pah archives kirkbride
A book about the Religious Society of Friends’ Yearly Meeting in 1834 lies open. The title page is slightly stained, but you can make out physician and Quaker Thomas S. Kirkbride’s signature.

In addition to the items in the copy paper box, Peeples also received a few unexpected bonuses from Jody Foster, MD, MBA, chair of Psychiatry at PAH. Kirkbride’s antique secretary desk is located in Foster’s office at Hall-Mercer Community Mental Health Center, and Foster recently discovered a pile of nineteenth century books inside — among them, two tomes written by social reformer and mental health advocate William Tuke and a book about cholera. “I was especially glad to see that because I’ve been researching different infectious diseases during COVID,” Peeples said.

There were also non-medical works like a book of poetry. The most exciting, though, was a book of minutes and epistles from the 1834 Religious Society of Friends’ Annual Meeting. The title page, though slightly stained, prominently features Kirkbride’s signature. He was a devout Quaker, and his faith informed his practices and commitment to “moral treatment,” from his time as the youngest resident at the city’s Friends Asylum to his years as superintendent at what became the Institute. For Peeples, his decision to keep this book “stuffed in his secretary, available for reference” at a moment’s notice offers insight into how his personal beliefs shaped and informed his professional life.

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