By John Shea

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 – note the 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 as much as they could 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. In a letter of recommenda­tion, Franklin described Shippen as “an ingenious worthy young Man.” Morgan he described as “a young  gentleman of Philadel­phia whom I have long known and greatly esteem.” Both 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 barely on speaking terms. And over time things would get worse. 

According to Stanley Finger, Ph.D., 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. 

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. For part of his presentation, however, Morgan sought to dis­tinguish the physician from the more lowly apothecary or sur­geon: their practices, he argued, 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.”

As Morgan obviously knew, surgery was Shippen’s specialty, and Shippen did not appreciate Morgan’s characterization. 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. It was, in fact, Shippen who lectured first, on November 14, 1765, four days before Morgan. 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.

Continental Appointments

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. Corner notes that “Morgan’s temperament included neither tact nor patience,” so perhaps he was not the ideal person for the position. 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, in part because of the efforts of Morgan and another pioneer of Penn’s medical school, Benjamin Rush. 

It became even more complicated. According to the Office of Medical History of the U.S. Army Medical Department, the charges against Shippen included ignorance and neglect of his duties, misapplication of hospital supplies and funds, and pro­viding false morbidity and mortality reports. Shippen appeared before a court martial 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, M.D. ’58, 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. 

The third and fourth faculty members appointed professors in the young medical school were Adam Kuhn and Benjamin Rush. Rush, whose fame as a physician and author was to sur­pass that of Morgan and Shippen, was clearly on the side of Morgan. According to Corner, Rush “hated the Shippens,” both William Jr. and his father, also a prominent medical practi­tioner. In 1781, Rush declared the younger Shippen “unfit to teach in the University because of his alleged maladministration as director general of hospitals” – even though Shippen had been acquitted of the charges!

Despite the differences between Morgan and Shippen, these two extremely talented physicians were both there at the birth of the first medical school in America. Each has a claim as a founder. But Morgan’s name, it appears, should come first. 

Share This Page: