Rescuing the “Sick Poor and Lunaticks”

  • Medicine & Health
  • 1751

At a time when Philadelphia was the fastest-growing city in America (and the second-largest English-speaking city in the British Empire), two city benefactors came together to create a hospital (an institution then coming into vogue in Europe). The institution was intended “to care for the sick poor of the Province and for the reception and care of lunaticks” who were then wandering the streets of the city of Brotherly Love. At a time when many medical institutions were designed simply to remove the ill from the community, the Pennsylvania Hospital aimed to restore them to active health, and toward this end it connected, from its very beginning, medical care and medical teaching.

Thomas Bond, who came up with the idea, was a London-trained physician. When he mentioned his aspiration to his friend Benjamin Franklin, Franklin offered a large personal donation and became a strong public advocate for the plan—offering the seemingly unreachable sum of 2,000 pounds, to be provided from his own pocket and those of friends he would solicit, if the Pennsylvania Assembly would match that amount. Franklin quickly exceeded his goal, and a charter was granted. Franklin remained a strong supporter to the end of his life, writing fundraising appeals, investing the hospital’s endowment, purchasing modern equipment for it when he was in Europe, and continuing to give his own resources.

The seal of the new Pennsylvania Hospital was inscribed with an image of the Good Samaritan and the words “Take care of him and I will repay thee.” Bond became a volunteer physician and manager, offering his professional services from the time of its creation until his death 33 years later. Bond also collaborated with Franklin in creating the educational institution that became the University of Pennsylvania, and beginning in 1766 he shared his own medical knowledge by conducting clinical lectures to students at the hospital. Dr. Bond thus became known as America’s “father of clinical medicine.” The Pennsylvania Hospital pioneered a number of other firsts—the first surgical amphitheater, the first hospital auxiliary, the first apothecary.

Pennsylvania Hospital’s deepest influence, though, came in psychiatric care. In 1783 Benjamin Rush (whose own medical clinic is described in the 1786 entry above) joined the medical staff of Pennsylvania Hospital. Among other contributions at the hospital, Rush dramatically improved the treatment of the insane—who he recognized to be suffering from illness—to be deserving of respect, and to be responsive in some cases to treatment. From his work at Bond and Franklin’s hospital, Rush later wrote the first psychiatric text produced in the U.S. He became known as the “father of American psychiatry.”