Dr. Philip Syng Physick (1768-1837), engraving after Henry Inman for the University of Pennsylvania
Courtesy Duke University Medical Library, History of Medicine Collections
The tea urn in this service, one of the finest examples of Federal presentation silver known, was presented to Philip Syng Physick, known as the Father of American Surgery, for his brilliant efforts in treating victims of the yellow fever epidemic of Philadelphia in 1798.
Philip Syng Physick witnessed the American Revolution from Philadelphia, where his father, Edmund Physick, was keeper of the great seal in the colonial government, and a manager of the Penn family estate. The young Physick was grandson of Philip Syng, Jr., colonial silversmith and public servant, who fashioned the silver inkstand used to sign the Declaration of Independence and offered financial support to the foundation of numerous Philadelphia institutions, including the Pennsylvania Hospital.
Though the young Physick showed an interest in craftsmanship, he was encouraged by his father to pursue his passion for mechanism through the medical arts. He graduated from University of Pennsylvania in 1785, and went to London to work with the distinguished surgeon John Hunter, who was known for his mastery of anatomical subtlety. Under the tutelage of Hunter, and evidently due to great natural predisposition, Physick rapidly developed a surgical expertise that lead to his early appointment as house surgeon at St. George's Hospital in London in 1790.
Physick wrote his dissertation on apoplexy--and dedicated it to Hunter--to complete his medical degree at the University of Edinburgh in 1792. Declining to remain in London in private practice with Hunter, Physick returned to Philadelphia--and a decade of ruinous disease.
When yellow fever overtook the city in 1793, Physick was appointed attending surgeon at the yellow fever Hospital at Bush Hill. He was one of few doctors who remained in the city during the epidemic, and though he contracted the disease himself, he continued to care for patients.
Miraculously, Physick navigated a second outbreak of the fever in 1798. He was appointed as attending surgeon, and though he fell ill with the fever, he recovered and returned to his post. Eventually, through repeated post-mortem investigations, he was able to establish the nature of the deadly gastric inflammation associated with the fever. It was this intellectual progress, and Physick's mythical self-sacrifice, that prompted the managers of the City Hospital to formally recognize his efforts with this commemorative tea service. The transaction is recorded in the Medical Times in 1840, as follows:
During the prevalence of the yellow fever in 1798, Dr. Physick was again resident physician at the Bush Hill Hospital; and upon leaving the institution after the subsidence of the epidemic, he was presented in a flattering manner by the board of managers, with some valuable silver plate.
(J. Angerstein Carfrae, op. cit., 1840, vol. II, p. 97)
Physick's legacy as a hero in the yellow fever crises of the late 18th century was enriched by his contributions to medical technique and his exceptional devotion to the city's medical institutions. He innovated continuously, introducing the stomach pump and using autopsy to demystify and tackle epidemic diseases like yellow fever. His expertise was like that of a celebrity, and he was sought out for difficult cases. In 1831, he famously removed approximately 1,000 tiny bladder stones from Chief Justice John Marshall.
A renowned lecturer, Physick distributed his findings to the next generation of surgeons from his position as chair of surgery and then anatomy at the University of Pennsylvania. He served as a leader among his peers as the President of the Philadelphia Medical Society between 1847 and 1837, and was the first President of Academy of Medicine.
In the spirit of commemorative silver in the era of the New Republic, Philip Syng Physick was honored by this service in 1798 as more than a hero of the moment. In the act of commissioning the silver, the managers of the hospital recognized him as a pioneer whose efforts in the realm of clinical research would affect the American medical field indefinitely. Early as it was in the American Republic and the Industrial Revolution, Physick's devotion to his city and his zeal of technical innovation would have offered the promise of progress for Philadelphia's shaken public and the managers of the City Hospital. The monumentality of the service and the deferential nature of its inscription reflect the young and hopeful American psyche and predict the greatness of the rest of Physick's career.
Philadelphia continues to celebrate the life of Philip Syng Physick with the preservation of the Physick House on Society Hill. The house belonged to Physick from 1815 until his death, and is now a museum open to the public.
For more information, see:
J. Angerstein Carfrae, Medical Times: A Journal of English and Foreign Medicine and Miscellany of Medical Affairs, 1840, vol. II, p. 97; Thomas George Morton, Frank Woodburg, The History of the Pennsylvania Hospital, 1751-1895, Times Printing House, 1897, p. 497; David B. Warren, Katherine S. Howe, Michael K. Brown, Marks of Achievement: Four Centuries of American Presentation Silver, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1987