American Medical Biographies/Morgan, John

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Morgan, John (1735–1789)

The founder of the first medical school in America was of Welsh ancestry, his father, Evan Morgan, having emigrated from Wales to Pennsylvania, settling in Philadelphia, where he became a very successful merchant. John Morgan went to the Academy at Nottingham, in Maryland, kept by the Rev. Samuel Finley. Morgan received the degree of A. B. from the College of Philadelphia in 1757, with the first class that graduated. He then served as apprentice to Dr. John Redman (q. v.), thirteen months of the time being passed as resident apothecary to the Pennsylvania Hospital. Of this period he writes, "At the same time I had an opportunity of being acquainted with the practice of other eminent physicians in this place; particularly of all the physicians of the hospital, whose prescriptions I put up there above the space of one year." After his apprenticeship had expired he spent four years as surgeon to the Pennsylvania troops in the war between the French and English. Dr. Rush speaks of the excellence of his work in this capacity, stating, "I well remember to have heard it said that if it were possible for any man to merit heaven by his good works, Dr. Morgan would deserve it, for his faithful attendance upon his patients."

In 1760 he went abroad, studying first in London, especially with the Hunters, and then going to Edinburgh. Norris quotes a letter of introduction which Benjamin Franklin, then living in London, gave him to Lord Kames, in which he states that he thinks Morgan "will one day make a good figure in the profession, and be of some credit to the school he studies in, if great industry and application, joined with natural genius and sagacity, afford any foundation for the presage." At Edinburgh he took his M. D. in 1763. His thesis was entitled "De Puopoiesis," and in it he first advanced the view that pus was a secretion formed by the blood-vessels in conditions of inflammation.

From Edinburgh he went to Paris, where he particularly studied anatomy. He read a paper on "Suppuration" before the Royal Academy of Surgery in Paris, and demonstrated the methods employed by the Hunters to inject and preserve anatomical specimens, and subsequently a paper "On the Art of Making Anatomical Preparations by Corrosion" to the Academy, upon the strength of which he was elected a member.

Continuing his travels into Italy, he met Morgagni. Rush, in his account of Morgan, states that Morgagni "was so pleased with the doctor that he claimed kindred with him, from the resemblance of their names, and on the blank leaf of a copy of his works, which he presented to him, he inscribed with his own hand the following words: "Affini suo, medico praeclarissimo. Johanni Morgan, donat Auctor." This anecdote has had its veracity impugned because the College of Physicians of Philadelphia contains the original books given by Morgagni to Morgan, and by the latter donated to the college, and there is no such inscription to be found on their fly leaves. Dr. George Dock has recently investigated the subject, and his conclusions would seem to warrant our belief in what has ever been regarded as one of the most pleasant legends of early medical history.

The young American received many substantial honors during his sojourn abroad. He was made a member of the Belles-Lettres Society of Rome, and in England was honored by election to the Royal Society as well as by being made a licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians.

During his travels Morgan had thought much of the project of founding a medical school in his native city, and upon his return, in 1765, brought with him a letter from the proprietary, Thomas Penn, to the Board of Trustees of the College of Philadelphia, endorsing his scheme to establish a medical school in connection with the college. Dr. Morgan's project met with immediate approval, and on May 3, 1765, they elected him professor of the theory and practice of medicine in the college, thus establishing the school which still flourishes as the department of medicine of the University of Pennsylvania. On May 30, 1765, Morgan delivered his celebrated address, entitled "A Discourse upon the Institution of Medical Schools in America." He had written this when in Paris, and it had undergone careful scrutiny by Fothergill, William Hunter and Dr. Watson, of London. In it he recommended a very comprehensive preliminary education preparatory to the study of medicine.

Dr. Morgan arrived at home in April, 1765, and in the following month proposed to the trustees of the college his plan for translating medical science into their seminary, boldly urging a full and enlarged scheme for teaching medicine in all its branches. Morgan retained his professorship until his death, when Dr. Benjamin Rush (q. v.) succeeded. As a teacher he was held in the greatest respect and esteem by his pupils. Not only active in the medical school, in 1772 he actually made a trip to the West Indies and collected subscriptions aggregating over £2,000 for the advancement of the college. He was one of the founders and a very active member of the American Philosophical Society.

Upon settling in Philadelphia to practise he resolved that he would neither compound his remedies nor do any surgical work. He also endeavored to introduce the English custom of presenting the physician with his fee at the time of each visit. In the first two instances he was successful, although he encountered great opposition from the older physicians.

After Dr. Benjamin Church (q. v.), the first medical director of the Continental Army, had been found guilty of treason and dishonorably discharged, Congress, in October, 1775, appointed Morgan as his successor, and he at once joined the army, then in the vicinity of Boston. From the outset he set himself resolutely to bring order out of the chaos which existed in the army Medical Department. Morgan set to work at the root of the matter by instituting rigid examinations for those desiring to enter the medical service, and by exercising the most vigilant supervision over the work of the entire department. The greatest difficulty confronting Dr. Morgan, however, was that of obtaining hospital supplies. The finances of the Continental Army were never in a particularly good condition; but during Dr. Morgan's career as chief of the medical department they were at a very low ebb. It was the jealousy and insubordination of the regimental surgeons which finally played a large part in causing his dismissal from the post of director-general. On July 17, 1776, Congress passed a law, based on a memorial presented to it some time previously by Dr. Morgan, settling definitely the discipline, pay, and other matters relating to the regulation of the medical service.

The direction of medical affairs in the northern part of New York State was under Dr. Samuel Stringer. Under his management, or mismanagement, things soon fell into a disgraceful state of confusion. Morgan appealed repeatedly to Congress to settle the disputes which were raised by the officiousness and insubordination of Dr. Stringer, and at length Congress appointed a committee to investigate, acting upon the report, with the result that Congress dismissed both Dr. Stringer and Dr. Morgan from their positions. Morgan, in righteous indignation, published one of the most interesting documents in the medical literature of this country, namely, his pamphlet entitled "A Vindication of His Public Career in the Station of Director-General of the Military Hospitals and Physician-in-chief to the American Army," Anno 1776, by John Morgan, M. D., F. R. S., Boston, 1777. What angered him more than any other of the injuries he felt he had received was the appointment, on October 9, 1776, of Dr. William Shippen, Jr. (q. v.), as director of the hospitals on the west side of the Hudson river. Dr. Shippen had been director of the hospital of the Flying Camp in the Jerseys, and subject to the authority of Dr. Morgan. Dr. Shippen was ordered to report directly to Congress, thus ignoring Dr. Morgan, through whom such reports had hitherto been made. It is sad to find Morgan blaming his quondam friend and colleague in the establishment of the medical department of the University of Pennsylvania, as the chief author of his overthrow, but he does so in unequivocal language.

A tardy vindication of his conduct in this and another similar affair with Dr. William Shippen, Jr., although it must have afforded Morgan some satisfaction, yielded him no more substantial benefit. What added to his chagrin was the fact that on April 11, 1777, his rival Shippen was appointed to succeed him in the post of director-general and physician-in-chief of the army, and Morgan withdrew to a great extent from active contact with public affairs. He had been elected physician to the Pennsylvania Hospital in 1773, and he continued to serve on its staff until 1783, when he resigned under somewhat peculiar circumstances, though the minutes of the hospital stating his action add that it was "to the grief of the patients, and much against the will of the managers, who all bore testimony to his abilities, and great usefulness to the institution."

Morgan possessed an ample fortune. He is said to have been the first man in Philadelphia who carried a silk umbrella. He had a collection of valuable works of art, but that, together with his fine library, was destroyed by the enemy, partly at Bordentown, New Jersey, and partly at Danbury, Connecticut, to which places they had been removed to secure them from the very fate they met.

In 1765 he married Mary, daughter of Thomas Hopkinson, who died in 1785. They had no children. Dr. Morgan died on October 15, 1789, and both he and his wife are buried in St. Peter's churchyard, Philadelphia.

In addition to his writings already referred to he published the following:

"The Reciprocal Advantages of a Perpetual Union between Great Britain and her American Colonies" (1766), before the Revolution, and "A Recommendation of Inoculation According to Baron Dimsdale's Method" (1776).

He also contributed to the "Transactions of the American Philosophical Society" the following:

"An Account of a Pye Negro Girl and Mulatto Boy"; "On the Art of Making Anatomical Preparations by Corrosion"; and an article "On a Snake in a Horse's Eye, and of other Unnatural Productions of Animals."

Early History of Medicine in Philadelphia, W. F. Norris, 1886.
Med. Library and Historical Journal, March, 1906.
No. Amer. Med, and Surg. Jour., Phila., 1827, vol. iv.
Phila. Jour. Med. and Phys. Sci., Benjamin Rush, 1820, vol. i.