American Medical Biographies/Pepper, William (1843–1898)

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Pepper, William (1843–1898)

The establishment of the hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, a re-organization of the medical curriculum of the University and the founding of a great commercial museum and free library are deeds whose fruit is long enjoyed but the author soon forgotten. William Pepper, enthusiastic, persistent, set out in life with a breezy determination to effect necessary changes and accomplished his purpose.

He was born in Philadelphia, August 21, 1843, being the son of Dr. William (q. v.) and Sarah Platt Pepper, of Philadelphia, who gave the boy a good education at the University of Pennsylvania, whence he graduated A. B., 1862, and took his M. D. in 1864. Four months after this his father died, but he had left the son an ineradicable heritage of thinking and working. In 1865 he was elected a resident physician at the Pennsylvania Hospital and on completion of service was appointed pathologist and museum curator, a position held for four years. Morbid anatomy became his special study and in 1868 he was appointed lecturer to the University and brought to the work rare skill and untiring energy; the descriptive catalogue of the Pathological Museum issued in 1869 by Dr. Pepper and Dr. Morton, gives good evidence of this. But much-needed reforms equally engaged Pepper's attention. How much he was instrumental in the removal of the hospital to new buildings in West Philadelphia was shown when the vice-provost, at the inauguration of Pepper as provost in 1881, said: "To him who has pleaded for mercy to the helpless sick as a lover would plead his own cause, who has touched with a master hand the springs of influence, to him public esteem has given the wreath as the moral architect of our hospital." "It is gratifying to think he lived to see it placed on a solid basis of success, with the maternity department splendidly organized, the Pepper Clinical Laboratory, given in memory of his father, and the new Nurses' Home and the Agnew Wing in full operation. The plan of reorganization was not carried on without much bitterness; indeed, it looked at one time as though the faculty would split." "Then there was the long and painful controversy lasting almost five years over the proposition to elevate again the standard of medical education." But Pepper's plans were crowned with success, also further efforts in the organization of the Association of American Physicians and the first Pan-American Medical Congress, of which he was president. He also interested the governments of the South American states in his commercial museum.

When in 1894 he resigned the provostship it was only to return to his first love, the scientific management and promotion of museums. In 1891 he had undertaken to establish the Archeological and Paleontological Museums and the Commercial and Economic Museum, his desire being to see in Pennsylvania "a great group which would serve to illustrate the past and present history of man in every one of his relations."

"I prefer the life of the salmon to that of the turtle," he said once to Prof. Osler, but an arduous life of thirty years began to tell on him in 1898, when he had signs of dilatation of the heart with bronchitis and dyspnea. A visit to the Pacific coast was contemplated. Then came the news of his death in Oakland, California, July 28. "He died," wrote his physician, "at eight in the evening with a copy of Stevenson's 'Treasure Island' in his hands. At seven I had left him gazing upon Mt. Diabolo shadowed in the gathering darkness. I was called at eight and found him in the attitude and with the expression of angor animi, from which he never roused. I have never seen so beautiful a nature in sickness; his conduct and disposition were worthy of Marcus Aurelius."

"As a man," said Osler, his biographer, "he formed a most interesting study. In Athens he would have been called a Sophist, and I do not deny that he could when the occasion demanded play old Belial and make the worse appear the better cause to perplex and darken maturest counsel, but how artistically he could do it. He was human, and to the faults of a man he added those of a college president . . . but a man engaged in vast schemes with many clashing interests is sure to be misunderstood and to arouse sharp hostility in many quarters."

Besides the appointments named he held: Physician to the Pennsylvania Hospital and to the Children's Hospital; lecturer on clinical medicine, University of Pennsylvania; professor of theory and practice of medicine, University of Pennsylvania; member of the College of Physicians, of the Pathological Society of Philadelphia; honorary member of the New Jersey Medical Society; founder and for one year editor of The Philadelphia Medical Times; LL.D. of Lafayette in 1881 and of Princeton in 1888.

His writings comprise among others: "Lectures on Clinical Medicine"; "The Fluorescence of Tissues (with Dr. E. Rhoads)"; Meigs and Pepper on "Diseases of Children"; "Trephining in Cerebral Diseases"; and the "System of Medicine, by American Authors," 1886.

An Alabama Student, Wm. Osler, Frowde, 1908.
Eminent Amer. Phys. and Surgs., R. F. Stone, Indianapolis, 1894.