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Philip Syng Physick

Born: 7-Jul-1768
Birthplace: Philadelphia, PA
Died: 15-Dec-1837
Location of death: Philadelphia, PA
Cause of death: Illness
Remains: Buried, Christ Church, Philadelphia, PA

Gender: Male
Religion: Quaker
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Doctor

Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Father of American surgery

As a boy, Philip Syng Physick had little interest in medicine, but he apprenticed as a physician at his father's urging. He studied under John Hunter in London, who taught using fresh cadavers instead of merely using illustrations, books, and lectures. After earning his MD at the University of Edinburgh, Physick returned to his native Philadelphia, where he opened a private practice with funding from his friend Benjamin Rush. During the city's 1793, 1797, and 1798 epidemics of yellow fever, Dr Physick performed many bleedings and purgings (then believed to be therapeutic) despite being ill with the disease himself. According to his medical records, he was himself bled of a staggering 176 ounces in the 1797 outbreak. In the aftermath of his heroics he was widely honored for his work, and became one of his era's most famous physicians.

He taught anatomy and surgery at the University of Pennsylvania, and made several medical breakthroughs, including introduction of an improved technique for setting thigh fractures, and a treatment to remove urinary obstructions which involved beeswax on a catheter. Often called the father of American surgery, Physick introduced the use of setons (threads puncturing the skin to provide drainage or to guide subsequent tube insertion) to repair fractures, performed the first surgical repair of an arteriovenous aneurysm, performed the first successful surgery in the U.S. to remove stones from the urinary tract, and pioneered the use of stomach pumps in cases of poisoning. Further, he conceived of a surgical treatment for abdominal fistulas, and developed a technique for cataract surgery. In his most well-publicized surgery, he successfully removed almost a thousand bladder stones from 76-year-old Supreme Court Justice John Marshall.

Perhaps as a result of having learned and taught anatomy with cadavers and his frequent use of autopsies as an educational tool, Physick was emphatic that his body was not to be used for instruction of medical students. He left instructions that his corpse was to be buried in a coffin encased in a second coffin, and that his grave was to be watched over by an armed guard for six weeks following his death.

Physick's maternal grandmother dated Benjamin Franklin, before marrying noted silversmith Philip Syng, who designed the inkstand at which both the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution were penned. In the 1960s, Physick's ornate Philadelphia home was owned by Walter Annenberg.

Father: Edmund Physick (British gov't officer)
Mother: Abigail Syng Physick
Wife: Elizabeth Emlen Physick (m. 18-Sep-1800, d. 1820, seven children)

    High School: Friends' Public School, Philadelphia, PA
    University: BS, University of Pennsylvania (1785)
    Medical School: MD, University of Edinburgh (1792)
    Teacher: Surgery, University of Pennsylvania (1801-04)
    Professor: Surgery, University of Pennsylvania (1805-19)
    Professor: Anatomy, University of Pennsylvania (1819-31)
    Administrator: Chief of Anatomy, University of Pennsylvania (1819-31)

    Philadelphia Medical Society President (1824-37)
    American Philosophical Society

Author of books:
The Surgical Teaching of Philip Syng Physick (1981, posthumous)


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