A photograph of a historic house museum room with a painted portrait over the mantle.

Dr. Philip Syng Physick, Father of American Surgery

Circulating Now welcomes Mackenzie Warren from the Hill-Physick House, Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks to talk about one of the leading medical figures during the early days of the United States of America.

A portrait of Dr. Philip Syng Physick, on loan from the National Library of Medicine, hangs in the Hill-Physick House in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Philip Syng Physick (July 7, 1768–December 15, 1837) is known as the Father of American Surgery. He was an influential figure in the early Philadelphian and American medical community as a physician, lecturer, and inventor of medical devices. The portrait, by artist Thomas Sully hangs alongside objects and panels that illustrate his career as a physician. His most memorable accomplishments are the invention of his version of the stomach pump, catgut sutures, dental forceps, the method of setting a fracture without exposing the bone, and the successful removal of over 1,000 calculi from the bladder of Chief Justice John Marshall in 1831.

A formal painted portrait of a white man in a frock coat.
The Medical Museum in the Hill-Physick house.

Physick was a reluctant physician after his father, Edmund Physick (1727–1804), forced him to attend medical school at the University of Pennsylvania (1785), the Royal College of Surgeons in London (1791), and the University of Edinburgh (1792). He gained respect among classmates and colleagues thanks to his speed and deftness in surgery. The true test of skill came only a year after establishing a medical practice in Philadelphia during the 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic. In the early stages of the disease, Physick visited the homes of his patients for bloodletting and purgative treatment following the recommendation of Dr. Benjamin Rush. When the emergency hospital at Bush Hill, located 2 miles outside of the city, was established by the city of Philadelphia, Physick was one of four physicians sent there to treat the poor and dying. Working in the city and at the hospital created conflict with the amount of time spent with patients and disagreements about treatment practices. On September 16, 1793, merchants Stephen Girard and Peter Helm took over as hospital managers and installed Dr. Jean Devèze (1753–1829) as the lead physician. Devèze’s treatment regimen of bedrest and quinine was the complete opposite of the Benjamin Rush style of heroic medicine, that of bloodletting, purging, and mercury application. Physick returned to the city to treat his patients in their homes and defend Rush’s method, which began a lasting friendship between the two.

Physick’s reputation soared after the crisis and was appointed Prescribing Physician to the Philadelphia Dispensary and the Attending Surgeon of Pennsylvania Hospital in 1794 (Physick held this position at Pennsylvania Hospital until 1816). He was a popular lecturer and focused on topics doctors would most frequently treat and only on those with which he had experience and expertise. Though not an author himself, his lectures were transcribed by his students and published in textbooks, most notably by his nephew John Syng Dorsey (1783–1818) in Elements of Surgery: for the use of students. Physick continued to serve the public in the subsequent yellow fever outbreaks from 1794–1799 and contracted the virus in 1797. Having already incurred complications from a smallpox inoculation and nosebleeds as a child, yellow fever gave Physick a life of chronic illness, suffering from the long-term effects of the yellow fever virus like liver and kidney damage, which was then exacerbated by a bout of typhus in 1813.

A formal painted portrait of a white man in a frock coat.
Portrait of Dr. Phillip Syng Physick, framed oil painting
National Library of Medicine #101447906

His daily schedule was dictated by his health. He woke up between 6–7 AM, started work between 8–9 AM, ate lunch at 1 PM, had consultations from 2–3 PM followed by patient visits until sunset (health permitting), and was in bed by 9 PM. The combination of his illness and his work schedule left little time for his personal life. If Physick wasn’t working, he was resting. Friends commented on how visits were sparse due to his desire for solitude, prompted by his exhaustion. His relationship with his family also suffered from his lifestyle. He separated from his wife Elizabeth Emlen (1773–1820) when he purchased and moved with his four children into the Hill-Physick house in 1815. His daughter Susan Physick Conner (1803–1857) wrote in her journal “Our dear Father though kind and affectionate, was out nearly all day engaged with duties of his profession and of course we were often left to the tender mercy of servants, some of whom were unprincipled and undeserving.” Susan remembered her father fondly but did not write often of him.

Dr. Philip Syng Physick died in his home on December 15, 1837. His teachings lived on in his students who became the next generation of physicians in Philadelphia. His inventions and surgical methods were shared in medical textbooks and operating rooms, some of which are the basis for modern medical practice. The Hill-Physick House shares his story as a significant doctor, but also as a person who struggled with his health and his familial relationships, a familiar experience to many.

Visit the Hill-Physick house to see the Portrait of Dr. Physick and learn more about historic preservation in Philadelphia. The Hill-Physick House is located at 321 S. 4th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106. The house is open for tours Thursday-Saturday 11 AM–4 PM and Sunday 12 PM–4 PM with tours starting on the hour. For more information about visiting the site and upcoming events, visit the website at www.philalandmarks.org.

The National Library of Medicine loans items from its history of medicine collections for display in public exhibitions to qualifying institutions on a case by case basis. Learn more and if you represent an organization that is interested in arranging a loan, please contact NLM Support Center.

An informal portrait of a young white woman in front of vintage wallpaper.Mackenzie Warren is Education and Programs Manager at the Hill-Physick House, Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks.

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