America’s Oldest Hospital Is In Philadelphia, And It’s Stunning

I had always wanted to see one of those old operating theaters like you see in The Knick (or the Junior Mint episode of Seinfeld) but at some point over the last hundred years doctors realized how horrible an idea it was to have dozens of non-sterile people in an operating room so most operating theaters have since gone extinct. But on a recent trip to visit my family in Philadelphia, I learned that one of the few surviving operating theaters in the world just so happens to be located within the historic Pennsylvania Hospital.penn_hospital3

 

Ben Franklin laid the first cornerstone of the hospital in 1755, twenty years before the first shot was even fired in the American Revolution. It’s the oldest hospital in the United States and in fact it even predates the term “United States,” which first appeared in the Declaration of Independence–which was written 6 blocks away and signed about 5 blocks away.

Most of Pennsylvania Hospital is really just a normal, modern hospital, but the Pine Building on the south side is where it all began. I walked through an arched gateway on 8th street (which is where carriages used to drop off patients: the gatekeeper worked and slept in a gate house which is now a charity shop). Later on I learned that it’s the same arch Rocky walked through as he exited the hospital at the beginning of Rocky II.

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To the left I noticed a plexiglass box on the ground, which was there to showcase the building’s original cornerstone with Ben Franklin’s inscription. Time has, of course, faded the words a bit, but a plaque on the wall had legibly reproduced them.

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I made my way around the grounds, finding one of the cupolas that originally sat atop the main building and a statue of William Penn (which was a gift to the hospital in 1804 from Penn’s grandson, who had found the statue in a London antique shop). There is a “Physic Garden” on the southwest corner of the grounds, which grows various medicinal plants and herbs (the garden was proposed in 1774 but it wasn’t actually planted until 1976). The main entrance to the Pine Building was locked so I wound my way back around and went through the main hospital entrance.

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I checked in at the reception desk and was given a visitor badge and a map (they offer free guided tours, which probably would’ve been fascinating, but those must be arranged in advance). On one of the signs in the garden outside, it stated that the basement used to be occupied by cells for the insane, so of course I wanted to see if any remnants of those remained. To my disappointment, the basement has been remodeled into a bland office corridor. But on the walls were old brass plaques commemorating donations to the hospital from over 200 years ago, and there was a wall display about the history of nursing, so the detour was still worthwhile.

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I wouldn’t see it until I was on my way out, but following the standard tour route one would encounter an enormous painting on the way into the Great Court, “Christ Healing the Sick in the Temple” by Benjamin West, which has hung in the hospital hallway since 1817. And in the stairwell above the painting were some fascinating informational displays about the hospital and early medicine, with so much information that I could only take in a small portion of it.

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The Great Court upstairs is a gorgeous, well-maintained lobby with 150-year-old Portuguese tile, an antique fire engine in the corner, and a bust of Ben Franklin overlooking it all. By the front door there is a room that once held the original apothecary. It’s currently a meeting room, but in the corner is a glass display case with some old books and artifacts in it. Among them is a journal that recounts attendance at hospital meetings, most notably showing Ben Franklin’s frequent tardiness (a behavior which made me feel more connected to Franklin than ever before).

A grand staircase lined with tablets commemorating other hospital donors led to the second floor and the Historic Library, and that’s when my jaw really dropped.

I hadn’t seen any pictures of the library before visiting, so the gorgeous wooden shelves and railings and the antique clock and light fixtures took me by surprise. It was pin-drop quiet, and I had the whole room to myself. The combination of beauty and solitude is a rare one when touring historical sights, I spent a good amount of time soaking it all in.

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The bookshelves along the walls are crowded with over 13,000 dusty books, some of them dating back to the 1400s, with titles like “Diseases of the Eye” and “Diseases of the Gall Bladder.” In the corner was an antique wheelchair and under the windows were several molds of the torsos of women who had died during childbirth (one with the fetus and organs exposed). And in a dusty glass jar there was a tumor the size of a football that had been removed from a man’s face in the early days of the hospital.

On the next floor was the sight I had come to see: the Surgical Amphitheater. It’s a beautiful but simple room, with a light fixture dangling from the ceiling (probably filled with candles in the old days), a skylight in the cupola up above, and rows of benches and a balcony for viewing the operations. There was one small plexiglass case in the corner with some old operating implements in it, but otherwise there were no markers or informational displays, just a well-preserved space dedicated to surgical history.

I sat in some of the benches and tried to envision being a med student back in the day, wondering how much one could really see over the shoulders of the students in the front row. And I stood over the operating table, wondering how difficult it must’ve been to perform surgeries aided only by natural light.

A staircase to the right of the amphitheater led me to the second floor, which allowed me access to the balcony seats, and I yet again sympathized with the poor doctors who couldn’t possibly have seen much from the (pardon the phrase) nosebleed section.

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After amply soaking it all in I was prepared to head home, but I noticed that the staircase that led me to the balcony also continued up to another floor, so I decided to explore a bit further. The staircase grew smaller and tighter as it lead to the hospital roof, but, alas, the door to the roof was padlocked shut.

The stairwell, however, had a small, porthole-sized window that looked out over the city. In the foreground was the one of the steeples of the Pine Building, in the distance were the Liberty Place skyscrapers that define the city’s modern skyline. It was old and new Philadelphia encapsulated by a small, glass oval. A portrait of a city that always has more discover.

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