American Medical Biographies/Shippen, William (1736–1808)

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Shippen, William (1736–1808)

William Shippen, the first in America to lecture on midwifery and to establish a hospital for its teaching, was born in Philadelphia, October 21, 1736, and went as a boy to an academy kept by the Rev. Samuel Finley, Nottingham, in which John Morgan and Benjamin Rush were also pupils. He received the degree of A. B. from the College of New Jersey (Princeton) in 1754. He was the valedictorian of his class, and the great preacher Whitefield, who was present, is said to have declared that he had never heard better speaking and urged Shippen to go into the ministry. I He, however, returned to Philadelphia, where he devoted himself to the study of medicine with his father, Dr. William Shippen (q. v.), until 1758, when he went abroad to finish his medical education. Watson (Annals, vol. ii, p. 378, Edition, 1844) quotes a letter written by the father to an English correspondent, in which he writes, "My son has had his education in the best college in this part of the country, and has been studying physic with me, besides which he has had the opportunity of seeing the practice of every gentleman of note in our city. But for want of that variety of operations and those frequent dissections which are common in older countries, I must send him to Europe. His scheme is to gain all the knowledge he can in anatomy, physic, and surgery."

In London young Shippen studied anatomy with John Hunter and midwifery with William Hunter and Dr. McKenzie. He also had an opportunity of seeing much of the work of Sir John Pringle and Dr. William Hewson. He was on friendly terms with Dr. John Fothergill, the famous Quaker physician, a friendship which was fruitful in great benefit to medical education, as Fothergill became greatly interested in the Pennsylvania Hospital, and in the medical department of the College of Philadelphia To the hospital he sent a series of crayon pictures, illustrating the anatomy of the human body, which he had had made by Remsdyck. The pictures are still there and in a good state of preservation.

Before returning to his native land Shippen obtained his M. D. from Edinburgh University, his thesis being "De Placentæ cum Utero Nexu." In Edinburgh he had sat at the feet of Munro primus and Cullen.

Upon finishing his studies in London and Edinburgh he wanted to continue them in France, but, as England and France were then at war, he managed it only by the friendly interest of Sir John Pringle. This great authority on military surgery secured him the position of travelling physician to a tuberculous lady who having court influence, had got George the Second to procure for her a special passport through the south of France. In this capacity Shippen went over and met some of the celebrated physicians of Paris.

In 1762 he returned to Philadelphia, bringing with him the Fothergill pictures, and full of schemes to establish courses in anatomy and midwifery for the instruction of his fellow-countrymen. These plans soon took form and he announced his first course of lectures in a newspaper letter dated the eleventh of November, 1762, in which he stated "that a course of anatomical lectures will be opened this winter in Philadelphia for the advantage of the young gentlemen now engaged in the study of physic in this and the neighboring provinces, whose circumstances and connections will not permit of their going abroad for improvement to the anatomical schools in Europe; and also for the entertainment of any gentlemen who may have the curiosity to understand the anatomy of the human frame. In these lectures the situation, figure, and structure of all the parts of the human body will be demonstrated, their respective uses explained, and as far as a course of anatomy will permit, their diseases, with the indications and methods of cure briefly treated of. All the necessary operations in surgery will be performed, a course of bandages exhibited, and the whole concluded with the explanation of some of the curious phenomena that arise from an examination of the gravid uterus, and a few plain general directions in the study and practice of midwifery. The necessity and public utility of such a course in this growing country, and the method to be pursued therein, will be more particularly explained in an introductory lecture, to be delivered on the sixteenth instant, at six o'clock in the evening, at the State House, by William Shippen, Jr., M. D.

"The lectures will be given at his father's house in Fourth Street. Tickets for the course to be had of the doctor at five pistoles each; and any gentleman who may incline to see the subject prepared for the lectures and learn the art of dissecting, injecting, etc., is to pay five pistoles more."

His first course of lectures was attended by ten pupils, but it was not long before larger numbers came. The public was greatly opposed to dissection at that time and Shippen met with violent opposition on the part of the populace, who stoned him and smashed on several occasions the windows of the house in which the dissections were performed. To allay this prejudice he announced in letters to the newspaper that the bodies he used were those of persons who had committed suicide or been legally executed, except "now and then one from the Potter's field."

In 1765 Dr. Shippen began his lectures on midwifery, the first systematic instruction given in obstetrics in this country. He himself engaged actively in the practice of that branch although it was still customary to leave the management of labor cases chiefly in the hands of female midwives. Shippen's lectures were illustrated by the "anatomical plates and casts of the gravid uterus at the hospital."

In connection with his midwifery lectures he also established a small lying-in hospital "under the care of a sober, honest matron, well acquainted with lying-in women."

In May, 1765, the Board of Trustees of the College of Philadelphia had voted to establish a medical school in connection with the College and had elected John Morgan professor of medicine in it. In September, 1765, Dr. Shippen was elected professor of anatomy and surgery. In the introductory lecture to his course of anatomy lectures in 1762 the latter had referred to the importance of establishing a medical college in the colonies and this statement of Shippen's is sometimes quoted to show that the credit of being the founder of the department of medicine of the College of Philadelphia should belong to him rather than to Morgan. There is no doubt, however, that this was merely an expression of opinion and should not be taken as proving the existence of any definite plan for such an institution in Shippen's mind. To John Morgan belongs the sole credit of drawing up the scheme of the first organized medical school in this country.

When in 1779 the Legislature repealed the charter of the College of Philadelphia and recreated it in the newly-created University of Pennsylvania, Shippen was the only member of the faculty who at once accepted a professorship in the new school. In 1783 the friends of the college succeeded in having its charter restored, whereupon the trustees re-elected the professors in the medical school to the chairs they had previously occupied. It is curious to note that Shippen was a professor in both the college and the university, despite the rivalry between them, but in 1791 the College of Philadelphia and the University of the State of Pennsylvania agreed to combine and form one body under the title of the University of Pennsylvania, and Dr. Shippen held the chair of anatomy, surgery, and midwifery, with Dr. Caspar Wistar as adjunct professor in the same branches.

Shippen served as physician to the Pennsylvania Hospital in 1778 and 1779. He seems to have resigned because of his necessary absence on military affairs. In 1791 he was re-elected to the staff of the hospital and served until 1802, when he resigned.

He was a member of the American Philosophical Society and one of the founders of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, being president of the latter from 1805 to 1808.

Dr Shippen's first military position during the Revolution was that of medical director of the Flying Camp in the Jerseys, and as such he was directly subject to the authority of Dr. John Morgan. When Morgan was dismissed from the position of director-general of the military hospitals and physician-in-chief of the American Army, Shippen was appointed by order of Congress, October 9, 1776, director of the hospitals on the west side of the Hudson River. He was by this order placed on an equal footing with Morgan, whose authority was henceforth to be limited to the hospitals on the east side of the Hudson. Shippen was ordered to report directly to Congress, thus ignoring Morgan, through whom such reports had hitherto been made. Morgan, in his "Vindication" directly accuses Shippen of being the cause of his overthrow, and of aiming at securing the position of head of the department for himself. If this were so Shippen's efforts were crowned with success, for, on April 11, 1777, he was appointed to succeed Morgan as director-general of the Military Hospital and physician-in-chief of the American Army. This position he held until his resignation in January, 1781. In August, 1780, he was courtmartialed [SIC] on charges affecting his financial integrity. He was acquitted and, as stated above, continued in his position.

In 1798 Shippen suffered a terrible blow in the death of his son, a young man of great promise Dr. Caspar Wistar, in his Eulogium of Shippen delivered before the College of Physicians shortly after his death, says that this loss seemed to destroy his interest in every remaining object. He seldom lectured and his practice declined. He died in Germantown, a suburb of Philadelphia, on July 11, 1808.

Wistar gives a delightful pen picture of Shippen: "His person was graceful, his manners polished, his conversation various, and the tones of his voice singularly sweet and conciliatory. In his intercourse with society he was gay without levity, and dignified without haughtiness or austerity. He belonged to a family which was proverbial for good temper. His father, whom he strongly resembled in this respect, during the long life of ninety years had scarcely ever been seen out of humor. He was also particularly agreeable to young people Known as he was to almost every citizen of Philadelphia, it is probable that there was no one who did not wish him well.

Extract from an Eulogium in the Med. Coll., C. Caldwell, Phila., 1818.
Eulogium delivered by Dr. C. Wistar before the Coll. of Phys., Phila., 1809.
Phila. Jour. Med. Sci., vol. v, 1822.
Med. Repository, New York, 1802.
Standard Hist. of the Med. Profession in Phila., F. P. Henry. 1907.
Hist. of Penn. Hospital, T. G. Morton and F. Woodbury, 1895.