Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, Philadelphia County
A pioneer in medicine, Philip Syng Physick was known as the Father of American Surgery.
Philip Syng Physick was born in 1768 in Philadelphia. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, he began his medical career at the Saint George’s Hospital in London. When he returned to Philadelphia to start a practice, he provided medical care to the lower classes throughout the city. Among many medical advances, Physick was well known for his contributions against the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793 and numerous firsts in surgery, first that earned him the nickname “Father of American Surgery.” He died in 1837.
“Unlike to other men, a snow-crown’d peak of science, towering high” - A Memoir on the Life and Character of Philip Syng Physick, M.D.
Philip Syng Physick was born in Philadelphia at Third and Arch Streets, in 1768. He received an education in his youth and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1785 whereupon he began working under Dr. Adam Kuhn until proceeding with his medical career in London under Dr. John Hunter, becoming, on January 1, 1790, house surgeon of St. George’s Hospital. In 1791, he left the Royal College of Surgeons in London with the proper medical certifications of the time, and was invited by Dr. Hunter to assist him in his professional practice. While in London, Dr. Physick became close friends with Dr. Edward Jenner, who at the time was studying smallpox and working towards developing the eventual vaccine for this disease.
From the very beginnings of his medical career, Dr. Physick’s talent for medicine made a strong impression on his peers. During his internship at St. George’s Hospital in London, a patient having been admitted for a dislocated shoulder had been examined by several young surgeons who each declared emphatically and with strong assurance that their own approach to treatment was the best based on current knowledge at the time. When Dr. Physick, who was quietly standing among the English surgeons, was asked about the matter, he correctly advised on a more appropriate and alternative treatment to his peers before bowing and leaving the room.
He returned to Philadelphia to practice, taking a position at Pennsylvania Hospital. Dr. Physick barely earned enough money to “pay for the soles of his shoes” during these first three years. However, this obstacle did little to prevent him from providing much needed medical treatment to the impoverished population throughout the city. At the time, quality health care was more a privilege for people that could afford it and Dr. Physick worked to change this. He spent most of his career providing medical care to the poor and his devotion to this class of people gained him much affection on their behalf. As healer to the poor, his strong relationship with this class would be manifested at his own death when his funeral was described as one of the most affecting scenes ever witnessed in Philadelphia with a monumental turnout of people mourning his loss.
In 1793, the first epidemic of yellow fever came to the city of Philadelphia. This disease was especially brutal towards the lower classes and many turned to Dr. Physick for help. It was around this time that he paired with Dr. Benjamin Rush in a joint practice and both began tackling the arduous task of treating the sufferers of yellow fever. It was around this time that Dr. Physick adopted the use of post-mortem examinations to further study the effects of the disease, an approach that was rarely used at the time. This method of autopsy proved very beneficial in furthering medical knowledge at the time and gained Dr. Physick much recognition among his peers and doctors throughout the city and country began adopting this approach in all cases where cause of death was not understood, a practice that is still in use today.
During the city’s 1793 epidemic of yellow fever, Dr. Physick became ill with what was thought to be the disease. Yet his belief in always remaining accessible to patients in need saw to it that he never withdrew from treating the sick. This level of compassion and soundness of character was consistently shown throughout his medical career and is nothing short of inspiring for today’s medical students.
Throughout his long and successful career he was widely honored for his work, and became one of the era’s most famous physicians. He was recognized not just for his commitment to his patients but for several medical breakthroughs of which are still used today in one form or other. Dr. Physick introduced successful treatment methods including an improvement in removing urinary blocks through the use of catheters and beeswax and the use of setons for draining fluid from swellings and injured joints. He implemented stomach pumps for poisoning cases and specialized in a multitude of risky surgical procedures. One of his most acclaimed accomplishments was the successful removal of upwards of hundreds of bladder stones from then seventy-six year old U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall. He went on to complete a successful aneurysm operation, another first for his time and towards the end of his career and only a few years before his own death, he performed successful cataract surgery. Such distinctions would go on to earn Dr. Physick the title and reputation among his peers and future physicians as the father of American surgery.
As Dr. Physick grew older, he continued to treat the sick even as illness ravaged his own body and only laid down his scalpel when he physically could not continue to practice. He died on December 15, 1837 from what were likely complications due to liver failure and subsequent widespread edema and fluid accumulation in his lungs, a painful death for someone who spent his life alleviating the pain and suffering of others. His memory is sure to live on among today’s medical doctors and his commitment to the sick is one that all doctors should follow.
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Randolph, James. A memoir on the life and character of Philip Syng Physick, M.D. 1st ed. Philadelphia, PA: American Academy of the Fine Arts, 1940. 1-114.
Simpson, Henry. The Lives of Eminent Philadelphians Now Deceased. 1st ed. Philadelphia, PA: William Brotherhead, 1859. 788-90.