Penn Medicine's Role

The University of Pennsylvania was the first medical school in the United States, was affiliated with the nation’s first hospital (The Pennsylvania Hospital),  and the first teaching hospital (the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania).  The early American republic and the institutions housed within, including the University of Pennsylvania, were  entangled with the “peculiar institution” of enslavement.  Given its foundational place within the  history of medicine, the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine has the unique opportunity to lead other institutions in researching, documenting, repairing, and reconciling the consequences of such connections, especially in the history of medicine. This project honestly documents the history of Penn’s  medical school and its complicity  with  enslavement  and offers pathways to move forward that  acknowledge this unfortunate, but commonplace relationship  and rectify the centuries-long consequence


Undergraduate researchers with the Penn and Slavery Project have identified that the University of Pennsylvania benefitted economically from the institution of slavery. Many of Penn’s early students matriculated from slaveholding states, returning to the US south once their medical degrees were completed. John Peter Mettauer, for example, received his M.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. He then returned to Virginia, where he founded a medical school and conducted medical research on enslaved female bodies. Similarly, the University of Pennsylvania educated and employed notable figures including Samuel Cartwright, Samuel Morton, and Josiah Nott, all of whom promulgated racial science. This knowledge, produced and taught at the University of Pennsylvania, circulated among medical communities in Philadelphia and the United States. Some of these ideas continue to circulate today.  Still today the University of Pennsylvania holds Samuel Morton’s research collection of human skulls which contains remains from enslaved people.


Bodies and parts of bodies also circulated as pedagogical and research tools.  While no evidence exists as to the university’s ownership of slaves, at the medical school specifically African descended and enslaved bodies were used to produce medical knowledge.  According to Penn and Slavery Project researchers, the first dissection performed at the School of Medicine was upon the body of a black man in 1762 by William Shippen, one of the founding members of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. 


 This project will begin by researching and documenting the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine and its entanglements with enslavement.  Though local in focus, this research will not be limited to the University of Pennsylvania.  It will expand to consider the university’s relationship with other institutions of higher learning and health facilities in the city of Philadelphia.  Moreover, it will document the spread and circulation of people, ideas, and practices at the University of Pennsylvania, in the city of Philadelphia, and in the United States.  This research expands beyond the period of American enslavement to contextualize how advances in medical theory and practice have propagated throughout time to the present day.