Pennsylvania Hospital

America's oldest hospital. Another of Benjamin Franklin's legacies.

It seems a trifle peculiar to send someone on a walking tour of a medical facility. But in the case of Pennsylvania Hospital, the oldest such institution in the land, history, architecture, and landscaping combine in making yet another of Benjamin Franklin's legacies a singular destination.

The indefatigable Franklin raised money to help found the hospital in 1751, in conjunction with Dr. Thomas Bond. When the United States declared independence from Great Britain, the hospital was already 25 years old. Franklin also served on the hospital's original Board of Managers, as well as being its first secretary and second president.

The hospital's original home was the Pine Building, still a section of the hospital, which was built in three sections over 50 years. The primary architect, Samuel Rhodes, a member of the Carpenters' Company, took his inspiration from the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh.

Initially, the basement was used to house the insane (Pennsylvania Hospital being a pioneer in the humane treatment of the mentally ill). The first floor of the Pine Building was the men's ward; the second floor the women's ward; the third floor was reserved for servants and for isolation cases of both sexes.

The first floor of the center building features the Great Court, an antique fire pump, a Thomas Sully portrait of former Board president Samuel Coates, and the President's office. Inside the office one can see a chair owned by William Penn, a grandfather clock built by the noted astronomer-scientist David Rittenhouse, and a Thomas Eakins portrait of Dr. Jacob DaCosta.

The second floor of the center building houses a historic library whose beauty will make any bibliophile's heart beat faster. Upon stepping inside one feels transported into a rarefied atmosphere (the room is climate controlled) and into another era. First one's eyes fall upon the darkly patinaed bookcases enclosed with hand-blown glass panes which accent the over 13,000 medical tomes and herbal and horticultural volumes contained within. The collection includes many outstanding works in anatomy, surgery, internal medicine, national history, science, and botany.

Upstairs, a graceful catwalk girds the room. Cases featuring hospital memorabilia and temporary book exhibits are also featured. The only discordant note for the non-anatomist is in the form of three plaster casts of a uterine dissection, which were used to instruct the medical students.

Though the bibliophile might be tempted to read at the great room-sized table another remarkable room awaits right above. Outside the library, portraits of doctors bearing solemn countenances give the area an art museum atmosphere. Seek out the portrait of the Declaration signing, yellow-fever fighting Dr. Benjamin Rush also painted by Thomas Sully. Sully, after Charles Willson Peale, was the leading portraitist of his time, and his legacy lives on in his many works on display at the National Portrait Gallery.

Follow the large double staircase up to the Surgical Amphitheatre. Here, under a skylight, surrounded by rows of medical students above, surgical procedures were performed from 1804 to 1868. This period was prior to the antisepsis movement, and the hospital surgeons limited their procedures to amputations, extractions (tumor, stone, and cataract), and the repair of aneurysms and hernias. Hospital cofounder Dr. Thomas Bond performed the first lithotomy (stone extraction) in the 13 Colonies at the hospital on November 29, 1756.

To the left of the Amphitheatre, in the West Wing, is the Museum of Nursing History. Nursing uniforms, pins, caps, and other memorabilia are on display.

North of the Pine Building is the Gallery Pavilion, where one will find Benjamin West's extraordinary 1817 painting "Christ Healing the Sick in the Temple." The hospital asked West to donate one of his works. He executed a painting in London, but it proved so popular that West was forced to leave it there and paint a similar work. When the second painting was hung in Philadelphia, overflow crowds paid to view it.

Before leaving, tour the grounds on the Pine Street side of the hospital. While strolling through the gardens, stop to appreciate the fine merging of Georgian and Federal architecture. The rotunda will put one in mind of Jefferson's Monticello. An 18th Century statue of William Penn presides over the gracious setting. A well-tended "physic" (an early term for "medicine") garden features herbs that were once used for therapeutic purposes. Azaleas and wisteria encountered on your walk date to the last century.

The grounds also contain the unmarked grave of Mary Girard, the wife of Stephen, who was one of the richest men in the country when he died. Mary was committed to the hospital as a "lunatic" in 1790, gave birth to a daughter a year later, and was a patient here until 1815. Stephen Girard's endowments to the hospital were substantial.

  • It is the oldest hospital in America.
  • The hospital logo is based on the Good Samaritan parable. The hospital was founded to take care of the "sick poor" and the insane.
  • The first patient was admitted in 1752.
  • Basement cells were originally reserved for mentally ill patients.
  • The hospital has had fire insurance longer than any other building in the country.
  • The president's office housed the first pharmacy in the Colonies.

  • Location: Between Eighth and Ninth on Pine. (Map)
  • Built: East wing 1755. West wing 1796. Center 1804.
  • Architect: Samuel Rhoads (with Joseph Fox)
  • Style: East Wing: Georgian. Central pavilion and west wing: Federal.
  • Commissioned by: The Hospital's Board of Managers, including Thomas Bond and Benjamin Franklin
  • Tourism information: Self-guided tour (inquire at the Welcome Desk, located first floor, Preston Building, at 8th and Spruce). Guided tours are also available Mo-Fr 9am-4:30pm. 215-829-8796
  • Facilities: indoor/outdoor seating, garden
  • Official website:

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    Copyright © 1999- by the Independence Hall Association, a nonprofit organization in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, founded in 1942. Publishing electronically as On the Internet since July 4, 1995.