Penn Medicine News Blog

January 23, 2015 // By John Shea // Comments

Founders . . . and Feuders

250th // Education // Health Care Policy

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.”

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