Secret Philly

Inside Pennsylvania Hospital’s surgery theater, where patients screamed and women were jeered

Male doctors performed operations in “The Dreaded Circular Room.”

Pennsylvania Hospital is home to the first surgical amphitheater in the nation

Pennsylvania Hospital is home to the first surgical amphitheater in the nation

ROBERT NERONI / Pennsylvania Hospital
monicazorrilla

Updated Oct. 6

Founded in 1751 by Benjamin Franklin and Dr. Thomas Bond to care for Philadelphia’s poor and mentally ill, Pennsylvania Hospital is a historical icon. While the original buildings on the campus just south of Washington Square are now outfitted with modern equipment and function as part of the region’s second-largest healthcare system, they’re also full of history.

According to Stacey Peeples, curator and lead archivist of Pennsylvania Hospital Historic Collections, more than 6,000 tourists a year visit, seeking out the repository of gilded texts, haunting spaces and stories of social and scientific advancement.

The highlight of the tour, though, has to be the architecturally stunning space that earned the nickname “The Dreaded Circular Room.”

A public flaying with no anesthesia

If you’ve ever had a hospital operation, you know the characteristics of the modern surroundings: white, sterile, quiet, private. Basically, the opposite of what it was like in the 1700s.

Back then, surgeries were done in a grand circular room, with giant columns and a periwinkle-painted dome. There were no sanitary conditions — according to Peeples, doctors and attendants only washed up after they were done. “And even then, maybe only if there was a whole lot of spillage or gunk on the instruments,” she said.

penn hospital: surgical amphitheatre
Mónica Marie Zorrilla / Billy Penn

If you were a patient, you most likely were getting a broken bone reset, a tumor removed or a limb amputated. None of these procedures were done with administered anesthesia. You were given a shot of whiskey and told to bite a piece of wood as you were held down forcibly while a surgeon swiftly went in to cut up what they needed to cut up. If the surgeon wasn’t fast or strong enough, Peeples explained, patients would most likely bleed to death.

There was no privacy; the physicians at Pennsylvania Hospital had apprentices who would follow them through their daily routine, and these students would line the benches to watch while their superiors worked. The room was hot and regularly smelled of guts and puke — and it was loud. Per Peeples, you could literally hear the screams outside the hospital when operations were going on.

Of course, none of the wealthy were subjected to a trip to these terrifying hellholes. The rich were operated on in their homes, where it was cleaner and more intimate.

But the people who did get operated on in the amphitheater were handled by some of the most respected medical doctors of the time, including Philadelphia native Dr. Philip Syng Physick, known as “the father of American surgery.”

A scary place, especially for women

Medical science marched on, and the “progressive” tactics the physicians and scholars at Pennsylvania Hospital used were replaced with modern versions. Also outdated were the hospital doctors’ views on women Through the end of the 19th century, misogyny was rampant.

In 1869, a group of students from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania went to Pennsylvania Hospital to attend a lecture.

Dr. Ann Preston — the world’s first woman medical school dean — was determined to provide her female scholars with the best clinical training available. It just so happened that the best clinical training was at the Pennsylvania Hospital. But society still frowned upon the notion of women excelling in the “manliness” of a medical profession.

When the women arrived at the surgical amphitheater for class on Nov. 6, 1869, what they encountered was a scene described by the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin as more than “ungentlemanly” — it was tyrannical.

Spitballs, cat-calls, epithets, rowdiness, rudeness and tobacco juice were hurled at the direction of the “She Doctors,” as they were bitterly referred to by the mob, which rushed the amphitheater and surrounded the hospital. The event was memorialized in history as “The Jeering Episode.”

Pennsylvania Hospital tried to make amends. In 1875, the first training program for female nurses was developed.

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