Medical Education

The University of Pennsylvania’s Medical School, the nation’s oldest, was founded by Dr. John Morgan and Dr. William Shippen in 1765. Students came from throughout North America to attend lectures by an illustrious medical faculty that included national founding father Benjamin Rush. Morgan and Provost William Smith embarked on fundraising trips during the early 1770s to Jamaica and South Carolina, respectively, seeking out the wealthiest planters in those colonies for donations.

The nineteenth century medical curriculum offered students a chance to study anatomy from the enormous collection of anatomical specimens curated by Caspar Wistar, William Horner, and Joseph Leidy as well as through the dissection of cadavers. As historian Daina Ramey Berry has noted, Philadelphia was the crossroads of the domestic cadaver trade in the United States. Throughout the antebellum period, the Medical School recruited students from wealthy planter families throughout the American South, Cuba, and the British Caribbean. Trustees placed advertisements in southern newspapers, offering for sale volumes of published lectures by Penn’s eminent faculty and recruiting for new students. A receipt for an advertisement placed in the North Carolina Star is pictured above. This strategy appears to have been both effective and crucial to the medical school’s success: throughout the antebellum years, the majority of medical school graduates hailed from states where slavery remained legal. 

Like many nineteenth-century medical schools throughout the United States, Penn’s Medical School taught a version of comparative anatomy that emphasized the innate differences between white and African-descended bodies and unique racial vulnerabilities to disease and pain. Most of these alleged differences stemmed from the researcher’s pre-existing beliefs in the fitness of African-descended people to perform strenuous plantation labor in hot climates rather than from what we would now consider scientific inquiry. Penn was distinct from many other medical schools, however, in the national influence of the faculty and alumni who were theorizing and teaching scientific racism. Famous Penn Medical faculty and alumni included Charles Caldwell, Josiah Nott, Samuel George Morton, and John Peter Mettauer. Many Penn Medical School alumni went on to found new medical schools in southern states, publish studies about the peculiar health concerns of enslaved people (known as plantation medicine), and to teach their own courses on race medicine at southern medical schools.

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