William Shippen (1736-1808)

From Our History
Jump to: navigation, search

William Shippen, Jr. (1736-1808), an early US graduate of Edinburgh University, was co-founder of the Medical College at the University of Pennsylvania, the first medical school in the United States.

Born in Philadelphia, he was the son of William Shippen (1712-1801), a prominent physician and educationalist who later represented Pennsylvania in the Continental Congress. Shippen Jr. graduated from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) in 1754, and went on to study medicine under his father. He then travelled to Europe to perfect his medical studies. He first studied anatomy in London under the Scottish brothers William Hunter (1718-1783) and John Hunter (1728-1793). Arriving in Edinburgh in 1760, he attended classes by Alexander Monro ''secundus'' (1733-1817), William Cullen (1710-1790), and John Hope (1725-1786). He qualified MD in September 1761 with a thesis De placentæ cum utero nexu.

On his return to Philadelphia in 1762, Shippen began America's first series of anatomy lectures (working with the bodies of executed criminals and suicides). Three years later he joined with another Edinburgh graduate, John Morgan (1735-1789), in persuading the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania to found the first medical school in the Original Thirteen Colonies. The school was to be modelled after Edinburgh, with a university-type faculty, rather than imitating the practitioner-oriented London hospital schools. It opened in Autumn 1765, with Shippen offering classes in anatomy, surgery, and midwifery. The latter caused much controversy, as many were opposed to male midwifery, and Shippen's classes were often disrupted by protesters.

Tensions soon arose between Shippen and Morgan, as, unbeknown to Shippen, Morgan had arranged to have himself appointed as sole director of the new medical school. These would come to a head during the American Revolutionary War, when Shippen connived to replace Morgan as Chief Physician and Director General of the Continental Army (forerunner of the Surgeon General of the US Army). With the assistance of Benjamin Rush (1746-1813), another Edinburgh medical graduate, Morgan succeeded in forcing Shippen's resignation.

Shippen was a founder of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, serving as its President from 1805 to 1808.

Related Pages


  • John Z. Bowers, 'The Influence of Edinburgh on American Medicine', in Medical Education and Medical Care: A Scottish-American Symposium, ed. Gordon McLachlan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), pp. 3-23.
  • Betsy Copping Corner, William Shippen, Jr.: Pioneer in American Medical Education (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1951)
  • Howard A. Kelly and Walter L. Burrage, American Medical Biographies (Baltimore: The Norman, Remington Company, 1920)