PHILADELPHIA, Pa. (WHTM) — Let’s start by clearing up the confusion. Pennsylvania Hospital is called America’s First Hospital, even though two other medical establishments preceded it — Philadelphia General Hospital in 1834, and Bellevue Hospital in New York in 1736. But Philadelphia General started as an almshouse (poorhouse), and Bellevue as a workhouse. Pennsylvania Hospital was the first to be founded as a hospital.
Pennsylvania Hospital was the brainchild of Dr. Thomas Bond and Benjamin Franklin. Its mission was “to care for the sick, poor and insane who were wandering the streets of Philadelphia.” Many of the most prominent families of Philadelphia contributed money (and land) for the establishment of the facility. Franklin was able to convince the state legislature to provide some matching funds; he later said, “I do not remember any of my political manoeuvres, the success of which gave me at the time more pleasure.” It opened in a temporary building in 1752, and in 1755 construction began on a permanent hospital.
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The original building still exists, a prime example of Colonial and Federal architecture, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and as a National Historic Landmark. From the very beginning, it was a teaching hospital. It has an extensive medical library of over 13,000 books, some of them dating from before the invention of printing. The top floor contains a surgical amphitheater, which could seat 180 people to observe operations, or 300 if they stood. (Since this was before electricity, operations would only take place from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., when enough daylight shone through the windows that the surgeons could see what they were doing.)
From the very beginning, the hospital emphasized treating the mentally ill. While there weren’t many effective treatments to be had, simply treating dementia as a possibly curable medical condition was an amazing advance at a time when many people believed insanity was caused by demonic possession. (Dr. Benjamin Rush, the father of American Psychiatry, was on the staff from 1783 until 1813.) Their high count of “insane patients” led to the hospital’s first expansion, a separate facility at what is now 44th and Market Streets, named Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane, and later known as The Institute of the Pennsylvania Hospital. (It closed in 1997.)
Other buildings were added over time. Pennsylvania Hospital today is a 515-bed, non-profit teaching hospital. Over the years it’s done pioneering work in a lot of medical specialties. In 1997, it joined the University of Pennsylvania Health System. (Benjamin Franklin helped found both the hospital and university.) And in 2021, it celebrated its 270th anniversary.