Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia is a spot you could easily walk past hundreds of times without realizing what a gem the interior is. Part of this is due to the fact that it is still a functional, 515-bed hospital – but the main building, a National Historic Landmark built in 1756 at 8th and Pine, is also a gorgeous architectural masterpiece and an important part of American medical history.
Founded as a free teaching hospital for ” the reception and cure of the sick poor”, Pennsylvania Hospital was progressive in many ways, including its care for the mentally ill – which is unsurprising, given that Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride was its superintendent, and is known for his asylum plan that was widely used across the United States.
Penn is also home to the oldest surgical amphitheater in the country, which is still intact. It was in operation from 1804-1868 and because of the lack of electricity was only in use for three hours in the afternoon. The Pine Building also houses the historic library of over 13,000 volumes of medical texts, which was designated the country’s most important medical library and contain tomes older than the printing press as well as plaster casts used to teach anatomy. The Great Court showcases portraits, marble plaques, and the hospital’s antique fire engine. Visitors can also enjoy the Physic Garden, a project delayed for two centuries, where plants that were used for remedies were grown.
It’s impressive to think how many notable historical figures, from Benjamin Franklin to Benjamin Rush (and many non-Benjamins also), were connected to the hospital, and to think that the majority of the signers of the Declaration of Independence would have at the very least walked by and more likely would have stopped in to observe this revolutionary endeavor. Penn Hospital was, prior to Covid, open daily for historic tours, but according to their website they have not yet resumed as of late 2021. When they do, visitors to Philadelphia’s Old City section should make a point to visit this gorgeous and historic building. Because the hospital still treats patients, it isn’t often included in the roster of historic sites to visit, but it’s likely that few places had as great of an impact on the community around them, and for as many years.
Matthew Christopher PA Philadelphia Nov 17, 2021 History