By Daniel T. Campbell

Dr. William Shippen, Jr. is one of Old Pine’s most notable historic members. His colonial contributions in medicine were extraordinary. Dr. Shippen left a legacy of medical expertise as wide-ranging as it was influential; doctor; lecturer; professor; medical pioneer; Director General of Hospitals, and;  a member of Old Pine’s original board of trustees.

Etching of William Shippen, Jr by H. Wright Smith (date unknown).

The Shippen family of Philadelphia was already notable when William Shippen, Jr. was born in 1736. His great-grandfather, Edward Shippen, had been Philadelphia’s first mayor. His father, William Sr., was a celebrated doctor and academic in his own right. His uncle, Edward III, was a founder of Princeton University[1], where William Jr. studied medicine under his father for four years before graduating in 1754 as valedictorian. He then continued his studies at the University of Edinburgh in Great Britain. He was graduating in 1761, just as his future nemesis, John Morgan was beginning his studies at the same school. Both men witnessed the coronation celebrations in London for the newly crowned King George III.[2] Shippen returned to Philadelphia in 1762 to create his own legacy.

On November 16, 1762, Dr. William Shippen, Jr. began the first-ever lecture series on anatomy in America. Three years later, he became one of the earliest professors at the first medical school in America at the Academy and College of Philadelphia, the present-day University of Pennsylvania. Shippen originally discussed founding the school with friend Dr. John Morgan. However, Morgan founded the school on his own, causing a bitter rift between the two for a quarter of a century until Morgan’s death in 1789. Shippen created controversy by teaching midwifery, then considered an “offensive” position for a man to hold. People threw rocks through his windows and mobs occasionally burst into his dissecting rooms. Shippen continued teaching. In 1770, Shippen was a member of the original board of trustees of the Third Presbyterian Church. 

The American Philosophical Society recognized Shippen’s stature and accomplishments in 1777, when it made him a member. This organization, founded by Benjamin Franklin, its first president, was the pre-eminent intellectual society in the New World. Among its members were George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Marshall, the Marquis de Lafayette, and Baron von Steuben. Shippen’s inclusion is proof of his distinction.

In that same year, Shippen’s medical ambitions reached their heights when Congress appointed him Director General of Hospitals, a personal victory since he replaced Dr. Morgan, with whom he was still feuding. This title was equal to that of today’s Surgeon General and allowed Shippen to reorganize the army medical department. However, the feud between Shippen and Morgan was becoming more heated, leading to a national crisis over management of the Continental Army’s hospitals. His wartime conduct came under much scrutiny. Dr. Benjamin Rush got caught up in the Shippen-Morgan feud and became a partisan of Morgan. Rush accused Shippen of negligence, and in 1780 Shippen was court martialed on five counts. Though acquitted by one vote, he resigned early the next year.[3]

Even after the controversy, Shippen maintained a successful academic career. In 1780, the renamed University of the State of Pennsylvania elected him Professor of Anatomy and Surgery, a position he held until resigning in 1806. He was also a founding member of the College of Physicians medical society, and its president from 1805 to his death. A father of eight, Dr. William Shippen, Jr. died in 1808. Though he was often controversial, his pioneering practices of midwifery, lecturing skills, and  furthering of science and anatomy in America earned him a place in history. Shippen’s legacy as an academic, doctor, and medical innovator make him a fascinating and forward-thinking individual, and one of Old Pine’s most historically noteworthy members.

Memorial

William Shippen was buried on the west side of the graveyard. His gravestone is missing.


[1] Then known as the College of New Jersey.

[2] Mary Ann Meyers, Dily Pegler Winegrad, Francis James Dallett, Gladly Learn and Gladly Teach: Franklin and His Heirs (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1978) 41.

[3]Linda S. Myrsiades, Medical culture in revolutionary America feuds, duels, and a court-martial (Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2009), 81-84.