Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Philadelphia's Physick House

Philadelphia's Physick House

In June of this year I featured Cape May's Emlen Physick Estate, home to the esteemed landowner, gentleman farmer, philanthropist, and medical doctor who never practiced, Emlen Physick. Word of my visit reached another Physick House - the one belonging to his grandfather, Dr. Philip Syng Physick - and I was invited to tour this very historic home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.


The history of the home where Dr. Philip Syng Physick lived on South 4th Street begins a few years prior to his arrival, in 1786. The home was built by wealthy Madeira wine importer and Revolutionary War Col. Henry Hill. The site on which the house was built had originally served as City Alms House, an institution which contained an infirmary for the needy ill, special apartments for the insane, and provided those healthy, but poor, the opportunity to work.

The home was constructed in the Federal style using brick, a typical Philadelphia building material, and rises three full stories, plus an attic. Inside there are thirty-two spacious rooms, including a ballroom. To demonstrate his wealth, over the double front doors is an intricate fanlight, sent from London by Hill's sister, Mary Lamar, and mirrored fireplaces made with Valley Forge marble.


Unfortunately, Hill did not have long to enjoy his home. In 1798, he succumbed to yellow fever. In 1815, Dr. Philip Syng Physick, who is considered the "Father of American Surgery," moved into the house, but not without controversy.

Philip Syng Physick was born July 7, 1768 in his parents' house on Mulberry (now Arch) Street in Philadelphia. He was brought up as a Quaker and attended the Friends Academy on Chestnut Street. He earned a Bachelor's degree in classics at the University of Pennsylvania. After his degree, he wanted to begin a career as a silversmith, much like his grandfather. But at the insistence of his father, Edmund Physick, he pursued a career in medicine. His mother's father, the silversmith Philip Syng, designed the inkstand from which both the Declaration and Constitution were written. An example of Philip Syng's work is on display at the Physick House.

After graduation from the University of Pennsylvania, young Philip then studied under Dr. Kuhn at the Medical College of Philadelphia. He also trained in London under John Hunter in 1788, who is considered to be the first modern surgeon. Dr. Physick was appointed in 1790 as Chair of Surgery at Saint George's Hospital in London. He was the first American to hold that position. He completed his medical training at Edinburgh in 1792 and returned to America that year in order to gain experience, donated his services to the poor. He also established the first health insurance system to America by offering full medical care for a family for one year at a cost of twenty dollars.

The ballroom with painting of Dr. Philip Syng Physick above the mantle.
Physick was among the few doctors who remained in the city to care for the sick during Philadelphia's yellow fever epidemic of 1793. He caught yellow fever but survived.

In 1804, Dr. Physick was appointed Chair of Surgery at Pennsylvania Hospital, the first to hold the position in America's first hospital. In the hospital, the first operating theater in America was built, specifically for Dr. Physick.

In 1807, Dr. Physick introduced artificially flavored carbonated water to America for the relief of gastric disorders. Teaching a pharmacist how to make it to supply his patients, Physick suggested fruit syrup be added to disguise the carbolic taste. Many claim, without 100% certainty, that this was America's first soda! English chemist Joseph Priestley developed soda water in 1767. You can purchase Dr. Physick's soda today at the house and a few other nearby sites in Philadelphia.

Among Physick's many patients were the daughters of Presidents' John Adams and James Monroe, First Lady Dolly Madison, signer of the Declaration Dr. Benjamin Rush, General Winfield Scott, and Chief Justice John Marshall.

The front parlor. Painting of Abigail Syng Physick on the far wall.
During his career, Physick pioneered the use of the stomach pump, used autopsy as a regular means of observation and discovery, excelled in cataract surgery, and was responsible for the design of a number of surgical instruments, such as the needle forceps, the guillotine/snare for performing tonsillectomies, and improved splints and traction devices for the treatment of dislocations. Many of these instruments can be viewed in the medical museum on the second floor of the home.

Dr. Physick and his wife, Elizabeth Emlen (married in 1800), never lived together in the house at 321 South Fourth Street. They had seven children, of which only four survived infancy. Dr. Physick and Elizabeth separated in 1815 after fifteen years of marriage. A story has been passed down through the family that they divorced over a dispute about a tree in the backyard of their former home, but it is unlikely that is true and the real reason will remain a mystery. The Physick House was purchased by the doctor's unwed sister, Abigail, in 1815 and deeded to it to him.

Some of Dr. Philip Syng Physick's medical instruments on display at the Physick House.
Dr. Physick made some changes to the original Hill home in 1815, including demolishing part of a rear wing and rebuilding major sections of the home. The overall footprint was greatly expanded.

After Physick's death in 1837, the house remained in the family until Philip Syng Physick Randolph I sold the property to Elise Wister Keith in 1895. Elise and her husband Charles Penrose Keith lived in the house until their deaths in 1938 and 1940, respectively.

Between 1941 and 1966 the house had many varied uses. It was deeded to Pennsylvania Hospital and during World War II it was used as a hospitality center for service men. There are stories of the men playing basketball in the ballroom! It was later a dance school, rented out as a home, and eventually abandoned. In the late 1960s, publisher Walter Annenberg purchased the deteriorating house from the Philadelphia Redevelopment Corporation and restored it. After the restoration, he donated it to newly-formed Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks. Thanks to Annenberg's preservation efforts, the house is the only free-standing Federal mansion remaining (out of three) in Philadelphia proper. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1976.


Additional photos of my trip to Physick House on Pinterest


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