Where History Meets Medicine: Antiques from the Nation's First Hospital

2012 Philadelphia Antiques Show Loan Exhibition: Where History Meets Medicine: Antiques from the Nation's First Hospital by Stacey C. Peeples
by Stacey C. Peeples

Philadelphia is home to the nation’s first medical library, hospital, and surgical amphitheatre, its first medical school, first children’s hospital, and first college of pharmacy. In a celebration of the intersection of medicine and art, the 2012 Philadelphia Antiques Show (April 28–May 1, 2012) Loan Exhibition showcased the exceptional fine art and objects that have been part of Pennsylvania Hospital’s 260 years of history. Established to care for the sick poor and mentally ill in 1751, Pennsylvania Hospital, still fully-operational, was the nation’s first chartered hospital and is a repository of antique furniture, paintings, sculpture, rare books, and manuscripts linked to its history. Over fifty objects from or related to the Pennsylvania Hospital were on display at the antiques show, and included:

Attributed to Thomas Birch (1779–1851), South East View of the Pennsylvania Hospital, Philadelphia, ca. 1799–1800. Oil on canvas mounted on two-way plywood panel, 30-1/2 x 44-1/2 inches.
Attributed to Thomas Birch (1779–1851), South East View of the Pennsylvania Hospital, Philadelphia, ca. 1799–1800. Oil on canvas mounted on two-way plywood panel, 30-1/2 x 44-1/2 inches.

One of the most famous views of Pennsylvania Hospital is attributed to Thomas Birch as part of his series Views of Philadelphia. He based his painting on the image drawn and engraved in 1813 by John G. Exilious, a patient of the hospital prior to being hired by the board of managers to produce the engraving. For his efforts, Exilious was paid $250. The Pine Building, featured in the engraving and in Birch’s oil on canvas and now a National Historic Landmark, was built in three sections: the east wing (1755), west wing (1796), and the center building, most of which was finished in 1801, except the dome in the amphitheatre (1804).

Thomas Sully (1783–1872), Portrait of Benjamin Rush, Philadelphia, 1813. Oil on canvas, 92 x 69 inches. Donated by the students of Benjamin Rush Pennsylvania Hospital Historic Collections.
Thomas Sully (1783–1872), Portrait of Benjamin Rush, Philadelphia, 1813. Oil on canvas, 92 x 69 inches. Donated by the students of Benjamin Rush Pennsylvania Hospital Historic Collections.

Famous eighteenth-century physician Benjamin Rush (1746–1813) was the only physician to sign the Declaration of Independence. Surgeon General of the Middle Department of the Continental Army during the American Revolution, he resigned after a falling out with George Washington over his concerns for the state of the army hospitals. He returned to Philadelphia in 1778 and dedicated himself to his practice; working tirelessly during the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 during which approximately ten percent of the population of Philadelphia perished. Contracting the fever twice, he applied his bloodletting technique to cure himself both times. He also bled, and supposedly cured, fellow physician and friend Dr. Philip Syng Physick. Called the “Father of American Psychiatry” for his interest and care of the mentally ill, he petitioned the Pennsylvania Hospital’s board of managers to improve the living conditions of the mentally ill, and created a “tranquilizing chair” to aid in calming agitated patients. Appointed treasurer of the United States Mint by President John Adams in 1797, he held the position until his death. After his death, his students solicited Thomas Sully to produce a likeness of Rush using a family image, and donated the portrait to the hospital in his honor.

Tall clock, David Rittenhouse (1732–1796), Norriton (later Norristown), Pa., ca. 1770; case by Benjamin Randolph (1737?– 1791). Mahogany. H. 8 ft. 7 in. Donated by Sarah Zane, Pennsylvania Hospital Historic Collections.
Not suited for farming, David Rittenhouse developed his skills as a clockmaker, astronomer, and surveyor, and was also known for his scientific skills. A friend of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington, Rittenhouse served as the first Pennsylvania state treasurer and first director of the U.S. Mint. This clock is one of two important examples (the other at Drexel University) in the history of clock making. It features a planetarium and a zodiac circle, and is wound monthly. In 1819, Sarah Zane deposited it with the Pennsylvania Hospital’s board of managers and it was bequeathed to the hospital upon her death in 1870.

Tall clock, David Rittenhouse (1732–1796), Norriton (later Norristown), Pa., ca. 1770; case by Benjamin Randolph (1737?– 1791). Mahogany. H. 8 ft. 7 in. Donated by Sarah Zane, Pennsylvania Hospital Historic Collections.
Tall clock, David Rittenhouse (1732–1796), Norriton (later Norristown), Pa., ca. 1770; case by Benjamin Randolph (1737?– 1791). Mahogany. H. 8 ft. 7 in. Donated by Sarah Zane, Pennsylvania Hospital Historic Collections.

Wine cooler, Thomas Fletcher (1787–1866), Philadelphia, 1831. Sterling silver. H. 11, W. 6-3/4, D. 7 in. (61 troy oz.). Inscribed to Philip Syng Physick from Chief Justice John Marshall. Pennsylvania Hospital Historic Collections.
Wine cooler, Thomas Fletcher (1787–1866), Philadelphia, 1831. Sterling silver. H. 11, W. 6-3/4, D. 7 in. (61 troy oz.). Inscribed to Philip Syng Physick from Chief Justice John Marshall. Pennsylvania Hospital Historic Collections.

Known as the father of American surgery, Philip Syng Physick (1768–1837) conducted surgery at Pennsylvania Hospital from 1794 through 1816. During that time he set a standard of surgical excellence that continues today. Among the specimens from his tenure is an eight-pound tumor removed from a patient in 1804 and on display in the Historic Library. In 1831, he successfully removed multiple bladder stones from Chief Justice John Marshall, who showed his appreciation by commissioning this wine cooler for Physick inscribed, “The tribute of gratitude for restored health offered by J Marshall. Philadelphia, November 19th 1831.” Physick innovatively treated dislocations and fractures; was the first to practice capillary puncture of the head for hydrocephalus (an increase of fluid around the brain); invented the tonsil guillotine (on display in the Historic Library); and was the first to use animal ligatures in surgery.

Thomas Eakins, (1844–1916) , Portrait of Jacob Da Costa, Philadelphia, ca. 1899. Oil on canvas. 41 x 32-1/2 inches. Pennsylvania Hospital Historic Collections.
Thomas Eakins, (1844–1916) , Portrait of Jacob Da Costa, Philadelphia, ca. 1899. Oil on canvas. 41 x 32-1/2 inches. Pennsylvania Hospital Historic Collections.

Jacob Mendez Da Costa, MD, was appointed attending physician at Pennsylvania Hospital in 1865, a position he retained until his death in 1900. Da Costa is most noted for his Medical Diagnosis (1864), which was translated into several languages and went through nine editions. During the Civil War, he used his observations of soldiers at Turner’s Lane Hospital to document “Da Costa’s syndrome,” a cardiac ailment frequently diagnosed in Civil War and World War I soldiers exhibiting fatigue, palpitations, and tremors.

American hand-operated fire pump, Philip Mason, Philadelphia, 1803. H. 67, L. 112 in., Pennsylvania Hospital Historic Collections.
American hand-operated fire pump, Philip Mason, Philadelphia, 1803. H. 67, L. 112 in., Pennsylvania Hospital Historic Collections.

Fire was a definite threat to Pennsylvania Hospital in its early years. The first fire engine used by the hospital was donated by Elias Bland of London in 1763, and was equipped with a hand pump to put out small fires that erupted on site. Another fire engine was purchased in 1803. Believed to be the work of Philadelphia engine maker Philip Mason, it is on display in the Great Court of the historic Pine Building.

Penn family land grant, with original Penn family wax seal, signed in 1767 by John Penn (1725–1795), Lieutenant-Governor of Pennsylvania at the time, who acted on behalf of his father (Richard) and his uncle. Parchment, H. (including seal) 18-12, W. 17 in. Pennsylvania Hospital Historic Collections.
Penn family land grant, with original Penn family wax seal, signed in 1767 by John Penn (1725–1795), Lieutenant-Governor of Pennsylvania at the time, who acted on behalf of his father (Richard) and his uncle. Parchment, H. (including seal) 18-12, W. 17 in. Pennsylvania Hospital Historic Collections.

Thanks to this land grant Pennsylvania Hospital has owned the property between Spruce and Pine Streets and 8th and 9th Streets in Philadelphia since the eighteenth century. Thomas and Richard Penn originally offered to donate property that was considered too wet and undesirable for a hospital, but eventually came around to donating a more appropriate piece of property, where the hospital has resided since 1755. Many other land grants are housed in the Pennsylvania Hospital archives, including the first land granted in 1751 to the hospital by Mathias Koplin, along with the records of the board of managers, financial records, the School of Nursing (male and female) collections, patient records, physician collections, and records of the affiliates and the Institute of the Pennsylvania Hospital.

Bust of Benjamin Franklin, attributed to Jean-Jacques Caffieri (1725–1792), eighteenth century. Marble. H. 23, W. 22 in. Pennsylvania Hospital Historic Collections.
Bust of Benjamin Franklin, attributed to Jean-Jacques Caffieri (1725–1792), eighteenth century. Marble. H. 23, W. 22 in. Pennsylvania Hospital Historic Collections.

Statesmen, scientist, and inventor Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) was also the cofounder of Pennsylvania Hospital, along with Dr. Thomas Bond. The proposal to establish a hospital for the care of the sick poor and the mentally ill did not receive serious attention until Franklin put his name behind the idea. Franklin’s “Some Account of the Pennsylvania Hospital” is credited with being the first development report. It recounts the founding of the hospital and records the use of contributions; it also provided a subscription form in the back for new or continuing contributions. Once attributed to Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741–1828), this bust is now attributed to his rival, Jean-Jacques Caffieri.

For more information on the Philadelphia Antiques Show visit www.philaantiques.com.

Stacey C. Peeples is the curator/lead archivist of Pennsylvania Hospital and the curator of the 2012 Philadelphia Antiques Show Loan Exhibition.

Photography by Robert Neroni Photography, Philadelphia.

back to top