College of Physicians Early Records
Held at: Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia [Contact Us]
This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.
Overview and metadata sections
The first recorded meeting of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia took place on January 3rd, 1787, though there likely three previous meetings dating backing to 1786. The meetings assembled several prominent Philadelphia physicians, including Benjamin Rush, William Shippen Jr., Adam Kuhn, Abraham Chouvet, Samuel Duffield, George Glentworth, and Thomas Parke. These physicians were the first senior “fellows” of the college, while John Redman served as President, and John Jones as Vice President. The intent of the college was “to advance the science of medicine and to thereby lessen human misery." Soon after its founding, fellowship invitations were extended to physicians outside Philadelphia, allowing James Tilton of Delaware and Isaac Senter of Rhode Island among others, to join the College.
Of the early Fellows, Benjamin Rush made the largest contributions to the College’s activities. Beyond his role in establishing the initial mission, he also encouraged the College to keep diligent meteorological records. Rush’s intent was to track the relationship between weather patterns and the spread of epidemics. This push established the Meteorological and Epidemics Committee of the College, which recorded daily weather observations and submitted monthly reports throughout the nineteenth century. Rush also organized the College’s library, appointing Fellows John Jones, Samuel Griffitts, and Caspar Wistar Jr., to the Library Committee in charge of soliciting medical volumes. In 1792, the library opened with Fellow Nicholas Waters serving as the first librarian.
An early test for the College was the outbreak of yellow fever, which claimed thousands of lives and caused thousands more to flee the city. In the ensuing spread of the epidemic, the Fellows debated both the causes and proper treatment of this horrific disease. Rush favored blood-letting and the application of mercury, while other fellows such as Adam Kuhn and William Currie prescribed moderate diet and rest. Rush increasingly dismissed and denounced those who contradicted his views, causing a fissure amongst the Fellows. Despite the College’s infighting, Philadelphia Mayor Matthew Clarkson requested the College submit recommendations for treatment. A committee consisting of Fellows Thomas Parke, John Carson, and Samuel Griffitts eventually recommended the quarantining of infected individuals and rigorous sanitation of the city. The yellow fever outbreak, which appeared in the city intermittently for several more years, challenged the College by claiming the lives of Fellows and by creating a contentious environment spurred by Rush’s denouncements of dissenting Fellows.
Rush’s behavior towards dissenters during the yellow fever outbreak, the untimely death of certain young Fellows, and an inability to produce significant medical literature from 1794 to 1820 diminished the College’s reputation during the early nineteenth century. This is evidenced by the lackluster meeting attendance during this era, as well as by the College’s failure to secure Fellowship from emerging prominent physicians in the city. Two developments eventually reversed this decline, the first being William Currie’s strongly worded appeal in 1818 for active Fellows to increase their commitment to the College. This sparked action, as the library developed a new catalogue and a committee submitted several articles for publication. The second development was the College’s contributions to the national pharmacopoeia. The book was eventually published in December 1820, bringing together work produced by the College of Physicians and other medical societies of the northeast. With its newfound professional recognition, the College was poised for future success.
Sources: -Bell, Whitfield J. Jr. The College of Physicians of Philadelphia: A Bicentennial History. Science History Publications U.SA., Canton, MA: 1987.
-College of Physicians of Philadelphia Website: History and Overview. (http://www.collphyphil.org/Site/cpphistory.html)
The College of Physicians Early Records collection documents some of the College of Physician’s earliest activities, including attempts by Fellows to diagnose and treat the 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia. The collection, which was discovered by chance in 2001 by College foreman Leroy Green, contains letters, manuscripts, and committee reports. Initially, the letters and manuscript were found wrapped in two bundles, without any organization or context. The items were then separated from the bundles and arranged for researcher accessibility. The collection contains four series: “Descriptive Material,” “Correspondence,” “Writings,” and “Administrative Material.” The “Descriptive Material” series appears first due to its informational value in understanding the collection’s material. The three subsequent series are arranged by physical size from largest to smallest. The collection dates from 1788 to 1847, 1889, and 2001. Researchers interested in the history of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia, or in the history of American physicians will find material of significance in this collection.
The “Descriptive Material” series contains material related to the collection’s discovery and contents. The first folder contains two newspaper articles covering Leroy Green’s discovery of the collection in 2001. The second folder contains inventory lists of the collection as it appeared in the two original bundles. One list was produced in 1839, while the other list was produced after the 2001 discovery.
The “Correspondence” series contains letters sent to and from College of Physicians Fellows, as well as from others involved in College affairs. The letters address numerous medical topics, including yellow fever treatment, small pox vaccination, tumors, and tetanus among others. The letters also address topics of administrative concern such as the declining reputation of the College, or the need to publish additional medical works. This series contains correspondence of many of the earliest College Fellows, including William Currie, Samuel Duffield, Samuel Powel Griffitts, Thomas T. Hewson, John Jones, Adam Kuhn, John Redman, Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Say, Isaac Senter, and James Tilton. Other notable correspondents include Alexander Hamilton, Michael Leib, and Charles Willson Peale. Some of the letters in this series provide unique insight into the yellow fever outbreaks of late-eighteenth century Philadelphia. A letter from Alexander Hamilton via William Williams to Adam Kuhn in 1793 approving of the New York physician Edward Steven’s approach to curing yellow fever, which included a mild diet and rest. Edward Stevens also wrote to the College of Physicians to endorse this treatment in 1793. Major Samuel Hodgson wrote to the College of Physicians in 1793 expressing his theory that yellow fever arrived in Philadelphia via the ship Amelia, carrying French refugees. Stephen Kingston wrote to the College of Physicians regarding his observations of the fever in the West Indies, as well as his recommendations for treatment in 1793 and 1794. Benjamin Rush wrote to Samuel Powell Griffitts in 1793 regarding successful treatment of yellow fever through the application of mercury.
Other significant correspondence in this series includes William Currie letter to the College of Physicians regarding the college’s reputation in 1802. This was a theme he revisited by Currie in 1817 to spur greater College involvement. Unfortunately, the 1817 letter by Currie is not located in this collection. Charles Willson Peale wrote to the College of Physicians in 1801 regarding the "steambath" method of remedying ailments. Benjamin Say wrote to John Jones regarding a 1790 case of anthrax contraction. James Tilton wrote to the College of Physicians and John Redman in 1789 and 1790 regarding the need for American Pharmacopoeia. Despite Tilton’s urging, the first American pharmacopoeia was not published until 1820, though the this book included contributions from the College of Physicians. The series is arranged alphabetically by the sender’s last name. In the instances where the sender sent multiple letters, those letters are arranged chronologically under the sender’s name. The series dates from 1787 to 1806, 1817, and undated.
The “Writings” series contains manuscripts and notes on numerous medical topics, including writings from John S. Billings, Isaac Cathrall, William Currie, James Durham, Lewis P. Gebhard, Samuel Powell Griffitts, Plunket Fleeson Glentworth, Samuel L. Mitchill, Thomas Parke, Benjamin Say, John Vaughan, and Nicholas Baker Waters, among others. Some of the writings in this series are particularly significant to medical history. The John S. Billings folder contains a speech he delivered at the opening of the John Hopkins Medical College in 1889. William Currie wrote several manuscripts and collections of notes in this series, including his observations on small pox, fevers, “kine-pox,” mania, and other medical topics. James Durham, a former slave who eventually became a physician in New Orleans, wrote his account of “putrid sore throat” in 1789, located in this series. Also in this series is Plunket Fleeson Glentworth’s 1809 manuscript on the emerging small pox vaccination. The series is arranged alphabetically by the author’s last name. In the instances where the author composed multiple writings, they are arranged chronologically under the author’s name. The series dates from 1788 to 1796, 1808 to 1809, 1815, 1817, 1820, and 1829.
The “Administrative Material” series contains reports, statistics, and lists produced by College of Physician committees and other administrative personnel. The Meteorology and Epidemics Committee represents the bulk of material in this series, with records spanning from 1835 to 1847. This committee monitored weather patterns through daily observations, and produced reports on how these patterns impacted the spread of epidemics in the city. The committee also tracked Philadelphia Health Office statistics as a means of observing epidemics. Other committee records in this series include the Library Committee, the Practice of Physicians Committee, and Printing Committee. Another significant record includes the College Censor’s recommendations for publishing papers by College of Physicians Fellows in 1819. This push for publication was an essential component of the College’s revival during that era. The series is arranged alphabetically by committee or administrative function. In instances where a committee produced multiple records, those records are arranged chronologically under the committee’s name.
- Billings, John S., 1838-1913
- Buchanan, George, 1763-1808
- Cathrall, Isaac, 1764-1819
- Currie, William, 1754-1828
- Cutbush, Edward, 1772-1843
- Duffield, Samuel, 1732-1814
- Durham, James
- Gebhard, Lewis P., 1791-1873
- Glentwroth, Plunket Fleeson
- Griffitts, Samuel Powel, 1759-1826
- Hamilton, Alexander, 1757-1804
- Hewson, Thomas T.
- Hodgson, Samuel
- Leib, Michael, 1761-1822
- Mitchill, Samuel L., 1764-183
- Parke, Thomas, 1749-1835
- Peale, Charles Willson, 1741-1827
- Rush, Benjamin, Dr., 1746-1813
- Say, Benjamin, 1755-1813
- Schultz, Benjamin, 1772-1814
- Stevens, Edward W., 1755?-1834
- Tilton, James, 1745-1822
- Vaughan, John, 1756-1841
- Waters, Nicholas Baker, 1764-1796
- Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia
- Finding Aid Author
- Finding aid prepared by Finding aid prepared by Forrest Wright
Benjamin Say discusses also discussed anthrax in the "Writings" series, filed under Benjamin Say.
This letter indicates it is sent from Shobin to Rush, however it appears to be in Rush's handwriting
Benjamin Say discusses also discussed anthrax in the "Correspondence" series, filed under Benjamin Say.