Medicine’s Past as Prologue

from Treating the Whole Woman, a Penn Medicine Media Seminar at Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia

Pennsylvania Hospital/photo: Mitchel Zoler

Pennsylvania Hospital/photo: Mitchel Zoler

I’ve always been an easy mark for the historic charms of Philadelphia, the city near where I live and work, and I came under that spell again today covering a press briefing at Pennsylvania Hospital, America’s first, founded in 1751. Although I had walked around it many times, this was my first chance to head inside.

surgical amphitheater/photo: Mitchel Zoler

surgical amphitheater/photo: Mitchel Zoler

The meeting took place in the most historic room, the old surgical amphitheater, again the nation’s oldest, first used in 1804 and retired in 1868. It’s simple, tall, and tight, with prim and practical Federal-era lines, topped by a massive skylight that flooded the room with light and nearly overwhelmed the PowerPoint slides. Only a handful of these relics remain, reminders that surgical instruction once intersected with theater-in-the-round.

entryway, Pennsylvania Hospital/photo: Mitchel Zoler

entryway, Pennsylvania Hospital/photo: Mitchel Zoler

The 200+-year-0ld building cavorts with the past, surrounding the theater with an ancient, wood-paneled library that shows letters from hospital organizer Benjamin Franklin and a large entryway of graceful stairs, fluted columns, Windsor benches, and gleaming, antique floor tiles.


Philadelphia wears its history overtly, with arguably more mementos of bygone days than any large U.S. city. Medical history is not an insignificant part, including the cluster of venerable buildings on Washington Square that once formed the center of U.S. medical publishing (W.B. Saunders, J.P. Lippincott, Lea & Febiger); the iconic, twin images of nineteenth-centruy surgical teaching rendered by Philadelphia’s Thomas Eakins–“The Gross Clinic” and “The Agnew Clinic,” both housed in local museums; and Pennsylvania Hospital.

The Agnew Clinic by Thomas Eakins/owned by the University of Pennsylvania

The Agnew Clinic by Thomas Eakins/owned by the University of Pennsylvania

The cutting-edge medicine on today’s program–robotic gynecologic surgery, microMRI for assessing interior bone structure, coronary bypass in nonagenarians–seems impossibly remote from Eakin’s study of Dr. D. Hayes Agnew stepping back from the operating table to make a point. The enduring artifacts of medicine’s history help give it a backstory, provide continuity, and make it plausibly all of one piece.

—Mitchel Zoler

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Filed under Surgery

3 responses to “Medicine’s Past as Prologue

  1. Kathy Scarbeck

    Mitch–great post! I love the historical slant and the photos!

    Kathy S.

  2. carolinasings


    This is a lovely piece and your photos are terrific! Nice historical overview.



  3. *~. I am very thankful to this topic because it really gives useful information ,`~

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