Your anesthesia choices? Rum, laudanum or a tap on the head with a mallet. This is another totally awesome tour for history nerds – so many amazing sites on one tour. Plus, it’s FREE!

Founded in 1751, Pennsylvania Hospital was the first hospital in the United States – another legacy of Benjamin Franklin, who was one of the founders.  The Colonial/Federal style buildings are still in use today (although only as offices) – the East wing dates from 1755, while the center and west wings were completed in 1804.

Historic Pennsylvania Hospital Philadelphia
The 1755 East Wing, framed by a “legacy Elm” grown from a cutting from the original Penn Treaty Elm.

One of the best stops on the tour is the nation’s first medical library.  Begun in 1762, it is housed in this beautiful 1835 Victorian library. In addition to the books (the earliest date from the 1400’s, although most are from 1750-1850), you can also see these rare English plaster anatomical casts of pregnant women ca. 1762.Historic Pennsylvania Hospital Philadelphia

Equally impressive is the neoclassical surgical amphitheater. Built in 1804 it is the oldest surviving operating theater in the world. The seating on the lower level has been replaced, but the dome, doors and balcony seating are all original. This is where Dr. Phillip Syng Physick, known as the father of American surgery, performed many operations. Surgeries could only take place between 11:00-2:00 on sunny days, since this was pre-gas lighting. And the options listed above? Those were the only options you had to dull the pain in these pre-chloroform, pre-antiseptic days.

Historic Pennsylvania Hospital Philadelphia
Awaiting Surgery…

Historic Pennsylvania Hospital Philadelphia

This 1875 painting by Philly painter Thomas Eakins shows a similar operating theater (at Jefferson College) in action:Thomas Eakins, The Gross Clinic

Slightly more sterile by the time he painted the 1889 Agnew Clinic: Thomas Eakins, The Agnew Clinic

The hospital also houses some impressive artwork, including this huge painting of “Christ Healing the Sick in the Temple” by Benjamin West. The first piece was so popular in England (where West was court painter to King George III)  that West sold it for the highest amount paid for a piece of art work at that time. It would become the first artwork to be hung in London’s National Gallery. West then made an “improved” version of the painting for Pennsylvania Hospital.  The two paintings are nearly identical with the exception of the “demoniac” or “lunatic boy” on the right side of the painting, which was added to the second painting as a homage to the Pennsylvania Hospital’s humane care of the mentally ill).Historic Pennsylvania Hospital Philadelphia

There are also some interesting artifacts on view, such as this log book recording Ben Franklin’s fines for tardiness at board meetings:Historic Pennsylvania Hospital Philadelphia

Note: You can only visit the hospital on a guided tour, which are offered Monday – Friday.  Advanced reservations required. Call to set up a time to visit.  They are very friendly and accommodating.

Field Trips: Visiting the hospital was a highlight of our year studying Colonial history.  They accommodate all ages and even incorporate hands-on activities to make it fun for elementary age kids.