Franklin and the Nation’s First Hospital

By Michael North

A Curator’s Welcome

The title page of Some Account of the Pennsylvania HospitalHere at the National Library of Medicine (NLM), it is my responsibility to oversee the Library’s special collection of Rare Books and Early Manuscripts.  It is the largest collection of medically related rare materials in the world and includes over 50,000 printed books dating from 1468 to 1800 and over 100 early manuscripts dating before 1600.

One of the many important items in this collection is Some account of the Pennsylvania Hospital: from its first rise, to the beginning of the fifth month, called May, 1754, written anonymously by Benjamin Franklin and printed in his shop.  The book is a report of the Pennsylvania Hospital’s activities during its first three years in operation, spelling outpatient statistics, correspondence, legislation, speeches, newspaper accounts, donations, and expenditures. It was the first hospital in what is now the United States.

In 1750, a number of prominent residents of Philadelphia saw the need for a hospital for the indigent poor, including the mentally ill.  Headed up by Quaker physician Thomas Bond and printer Benjamin Franklin, the group lobbied for legislation and raised private donations to found the hospital.

An illustration of a large building with three wings surrounded by a brick wall and shaded by trees

South East View of the Pennsylvania Hospital, ca. 1850
Courtesy National Library of Medicine

The main goal of the pamphlet is to show the hospital’s benefits to the community and request further donations, even telling readers how to leave a bequest to the hospital in their wills (p. 38).  From a chart covering the period between February, 1752 and April, 1754, we see that the Hospital admitted 117 patients: 37 of them with ulcerations of the skin (in an era before antibiotics or germ theory), 18 for “lunacy,” and nine for dropsy.

A page from the text showing a chart of cases of various diseases brough to the hospital and the result of the examinationThis book is just one of many recently scanned by the National Library of Medicine as part of an ongoing digitization project focusing on the Library’s early Americana collection called “Medicine in the Americas.”  Medicine in the Americas is in progress, and to date over 7,500 early American monographs from NLM’s collection dating from 1610 to 1865 have been scanned and are available to you on NLM’s Digital Collections site and on the Internet Archive.  The project has been funded in part by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, as part of a larger grant for $1.2 million to the Medical Heritage Library (MHL), a digital library collaborative among some of the world’s leading medical libraries of which NLM is a part.

I look forward to sharing more stories about this collection in the coming months and years, including news about recent acquisitions, conservation, digitization, and special events. I hope that people with an interest will explore the History of Medicine Division’s website and its many digital projects.  Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or comments at northm@mail.nih.gov.

Michael J. North in the incunaMichael J. North is the Head of Rare Books and Early Manuscripts in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.