A heavy paper card with raised gothic script.

Celebrating the Graduation Season

By John Rees ~

“The long looked for day has come and it is passed and all the toil is over for its attainment”

Ephraim Sheppard Wynn wrote these words of relief March 9th 1872, the day he graduated with his M.D. degree from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, PA, in a diary he kept during his last year of medical school. The diary has been digitized and is available in NLM Digital Collections as part of a digitization project of medical student lecture notes. His is a sentiment shared by many getting ready for graduations of all types at this time of year. Good luck to all of this year’s graduates!

Wynn’s diary is a unique passport into the everyday life of a typical late 19th century medical student. Readers can follow his daily routine of attending classes and recording notes, taking quizzes, attending study groups, taking his final oral exams, and hanging out with his friends before the last big day. Not only does Wynn chronicle his days almost hourly over the two years he attended Jefferson but he also pasted into his diary the College and Quiz Rosters cards that laid out his course of study and schedules. Starting at 9 AM and ending at 7 PM, he followed a set course of study in anatomy, physiology, chemistry, general surgery, institutes of medical and medical jurisprudence, materia medica, obstetrics and diseases of women and children, and hospital clinical observations.

In the 1870s medical education was still on the brink of professionalization and standardization. Medical schools in American did not resemble the selective academic universities known today. Most were for-profit “proprietary” schools. The full Winter session started in October and ran through the end of February. Students paid professors directly for each class along with other a la carte expenses such as matriculation and graduation fees. According to the Forty-Eighth Annual Announcement of the Jefferson Medical College of Philadelphia, 1872-1873 where Wynn is listed as a graduate:

The candidate for the Degree of M.D. must be of good moral character, and at least twenty-one years of age. He must have attended at least two full Winter sessions of lectures in some regular and respectable medical school, one of which, the last, shall have been in this COLLEGE; and must exhibit his tickets, or other adequate evidence thereof, to the Dean of the Faculty.

He must have studied medicine for not less than three years, and have attended at least one course of clinical instruction in an institution approved by the Faculty. He must present to the Dean of the Faculty a thesis of his own composition, correctly written and in his own handwriting, on some medical subject; and exhibit to the Faculty, at his examination, satisfactory evidence of his professional attainments.

The degree will not be conferred upon any candidate, who absents himself from the public commencement, without the special permission of the Faculty.

FEE to each Professor $20—in all $140. Matriculation Fee $5, to be paid once only. The Graduation Fee is $30. Students who have paid for two full courses are entitled thereafter to attend free of all charge.

Wynn’s thesis is titled “Foundation of Medical Education” and listed in the rolls of the Graduates of the Jefferson Medical College of Philadelphia, March, 1872.

Printed paper form with dates and signatures filled in.
Wynn’s exam schedule, 1872
National Library of Medicine #101681833
MS B 1089, p 4.

It is unclear how rigorous the final exams were. Wynn does not describe their contents much, but instead comments more often on his professors’ mood and spirit—perhaps all were ready for the school year to be over with. While most of the preceding diary entries are brief, he writes about his last two weeks in an especially thoughtful and reflective narrative.

Wynn’s final oral exams started Feb. 29th at 9 AM with an “extra” examination with Dr. Keen on surgery, then he moved on to his regular scheduled start with Dr. Gross in The Green Room from 10–12 AM and again from 7–9 PM. Wynn “found the room anything but an easy place to sit and wait for one’s turn” but that “Keen congratulated the class on their average proficiency and wished all a prosperous passage through the troubled waters.”

He found Prof. Gross in a good mood for his next exam: “Found the Professor excedingly good natured and pleasant—told me I had a good deal of pluck and had been a good student.”

Wynn was first in line for Dr. Dickson on March 1st. Dickson apparently talked more about the topic himself—describe the courses of disease—and asked Wynn only the occasional question: “Examination was easy to what I had expected.” Dickson as curious to know if Wynn “considered the old men of the profession ‘fogies, simpletons, etc.” and “said we had a very pleasant conversation and that he was satisfied with me.”

The other exams follow a similar pattern except for his 4th exam with Dr. Rand where he might have been taking success for granted: “Went in and had a very easy examination but made a miserable out of it … Could not have made much worse out than I did if I had tried to do as bad as I could.” And then panic creeps in—“March 2nd. No examination today—but am sweating over materia medica and longing to be beyond the reach of Prof. Biddle…. How I do wish I was passed on Prof. Biddle for I fear every question he can ask will be but a surer doom to failure. Anxiety is terrible but for 3 more days….”

March 6, the class nervously gathers together at 10 PM waiting to receive their ‘notices’ of graduation.

Wynn is last to get his ‘notice’ from Prof. Rand and “Cox”; some classmates don’t receive one. Wynn relaxes on the 7th and skips a few events to travel to Camden and Bristol. He returns March 8th where the class is to meet with Jefferson alumni, but he “did not get to it.” Later the class meets in the afternoon “to see about the dress for the commencement. Each one to go as he chooses so [long as] it is decent….”

March 9th is the big day. Wynn drew five balcony seats for the graduation ceremony—E 247-251.

The class met at the college at 11 AM where they received invitations to an evening party at Dr. Pancoast’s and also received their “Medical Ethics” book. They lined up to march to the Academy of Music building, arriving around 12 PM. Dr. Pancoast gave the commencement speech and “it was all over about 2:15.” And like many students that came before him and after, Wynn was underwhelmed with the event, complaining “I was disappointed in the manner in which the affair passed off—There was a great lack of dignity about it….” His soon-to-be wife Mary “was present in spite of the wretched state of the weather”, but in the end Wynn was still moved by the day—“took me by surprise when Dr. Getchell called out E.S. “Wyman” M.D.” The post-graduation revelry continued for both students and professors—“Re’c’d. my diploma from ‘Cox’ about 3.30 PM and he was as near drunk as he need have been.”

A plan view of townhouses on the 300 block of N. 3rd street.
Wynn’s home was #321. Sanborn Fire Insurance Map image #6 from Camden, Camden County, New Jersey, June 1885
Courtesy Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division

Wynn was born in Millville, NJ in 1849. His father was a farmer and his mother died when he was 10. He did not become a famous doctor or illustrious man of science—apparently, he did not become a practicing physician until many years after his graduation. Wynn was 23 years old when he graduated from Jefferson in 1872 and he married Mary Kinsey that same year. But according to the 1880 U.S. census, 8 years later they were back in Millville, where Wynn worked as a bookkeeper and they lived on a street with millworkers, laborers, and seamstresses for neighbors. He was a Mason and was active in lodges across southern New Jersey. It is not until at least 1885 that they returned to the Philadelphia area where he went to school to live in Camden, NJ where he was a clerk/physician for an insurance company.  Their home then was 321 N. 3rd Street—a 3-story semi-detached brick row house— where they lived modestly alongside tailors, clerks, a butcher, grocers, and carpenters. The home-site is now a Rutgers University-Camden parking lot. Mary had two more boys and the Wynn’s lived out their life at the same address. Ephraim died at 61 in 1910; Mary seven years later in 1917. Both are buried in Harleigh Cemetery in Camden.

For questions about these materials, including how to consult them, please contact the History of Medicine Division Reference staff at NLM Customer Support or (301) 402-8878.

Portrait of John Rees outside on the water.John Rees is Archivist and Digital Resources Manager for the Archives and Modern Manuscripts Program in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.

2 comments

  1. graduation is indeed the most amazing and never forget a moment of one’s life is the closing of one chapter and the beginning of another, thanks for sharing the story… 🙂

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