The Medical Department of Pennsylvania College, Gettysburg

The Pennsylvania College campus in 1862, with Pennsylvania Hall prominently featured. Gettysburg College Special Collections and College Archives.

Nestled away in the northwestern corner of the town, Gettysburg College is a small private liberal arts college (and my alma mater) with a long history. Prior to a name change in the early 1900s, the institution was known as Pennsylvania College, an admittedly vague name easily confused with other universities. Opened in 1832, the school was soon centered around the stately Pennsylvania Hall’s white edifice, still an imposing sight today. A few years later, a group of doctors, including Dr. George McClellan, founder of Jefferson Medical College, reached out to Pennsylvania College’s trustees in the hopes of creating a separate Medical Department under the college’s charter. And thus, an institution that would one day find itself surrounded by battle and home to a field hospital began to sponsor medical education that trained future wartime surgeons, including at least one who served in the aftermath of the July 1863 battle.

Though the Medical Department bore the name of Pennsylvania College and students’ dues were partially sent to the parent institution, the school itself was not located on the main campus in Gettysburg. Instead, this offshoot was located within the city of Philadelphia. Despite geographical separation, the school appears to have been impressive. Opening in 1840, it boasted a dispensary, access to hospitals for practical instruction, gas-lighting, furnaces, two lecture rooms, “a museum, a reading room, a dissecting room, and a chemical library.[1]” In 1849, the school moved to a new building custom built for its purposes which further improved the educational capability with larger lecture halls, additional offices, and a dissecting room. Courses were expanded, including a series on “Principles and Practice of Surgery.”[2] This administratively confusing start seemed to be working out, though the Pennsylvania Legislature soon barred any future institutions from granting degrees outside the town they were located in.

An 1868 photo of the Medical Department of Pennsylvania College’s second building, constructed in 1849. Library Company of Philadelphia.

Though Harold Abrahams study of the Medical Department in Extinct Medical Schools of Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia paints a picture of practical and rigorous coursework, not all was well at the institution. Financial stress led to a merger with the Philadelphia College of Medicine in 1858, though the new institution operated under the Pennsylvania College name. Following a long and complicated history of monetary problems and conflicts with the mother institution of Pennsylvania College, the school closed in 1861. The outbreak of war and students withdrawing combined with unresolved past issues doomed the institution.[3] Though it is unclear whether students at the Philadelphia branch ever attended courses on the main Gettysburg campus or even stepped foot on it, some practitioners eventually travelled to the town under extremely unexpected circumstances.

At least one student of the Medical Department of Pennsylvania College was with the Army of the Potomac when it travelled to Gettysburg. The slightly ironically surnamed Benjamin F. Butcher M.D. is listed in the Journal of the American Medical Association as a graduate of “Pennsylvania Medical College, Gettysburg, 1861.” One of the department’s final graduates before its closure, he went on to serve as the regimental surgeon for the 99th Pennsylvania Infantry.[4] Detailed to stay and treat the wounded in the aftermath of battle, he appears within the Camp Letterman case ledger, proving he was assigned to the large hospital. Opened in late July, Camp Letterman merged the various temporary hospitals in fields and private homes into a single better organized endeavor. The ledger records some of the treatments Butcher oversaw, primarily amputations endured by Confederate soldiers. At a glance, his cases include the leg amputation of Perry Lewis of the 3rd Arkansas Infantry, the thigh amputation of Pleasant Means of the 48th Alabama Infantry, the hand amputation of John Cobb of the 21st North Carolina Infantry, and the amputation at the shoulder of David Goodloe of the 18th Mississippi Infantry.[5]

Camp Letterman as seen in August 1863. Butcher treated wounded soldiers here using knowledge acquired from courses at the Medical Department of Pennsylvania College.

Most patients Butcher recorded treatment for recovered from their operations, a testament to the education he received at the Medical Department of Pennsylvania College. As he was stationed at Camp Letterman, just northeast of town, for several weeks he likely had time to travel to the campus that was in some untraditional ways his alma mater. There, he would finally have seen Pennsylvania Hall’s white columns, though the campus was in disarray from hosting its own field hospital. Though Butcher and his classmates may not have been trained on a campus that would be stained with blood during the Civil War and though his true alma mater may have been controversial at times, the Medical Department nevertheless imparted skills that helped save lives during the nation’s bloody conflict.

[1] Harold J. Abrahams, “The Medical Department of Pennsylvania College” in Extinct Medical Schools of Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1966), 31.

[2] Abrahams, 40.

[3] For other accounts of the history of the Medical Department as well as descriptions of the issues that plagued it, see “Extinct Philadelphia Medical Schools,” Penn University Archives & Records Center https://archives.upenn.edu/exhibits/penn-history/medical-history/extinct and Karen Drickamer, “MS-137: Medical Department of Pennsylvania College at Philadelphia,” Special Collection and College Archives, Musselman Library, Gettysburg College. https://cupola.gettysburg.edu/findingaidsall/122/

[4] Journal of the American Medical Association Volume 58, Part 2 (Chicago: American Medical Association, 1912), 2042.

[5] Henry Janes, Camp Letterman Hospital Case Ledger, 1863, Special Collections, University of Vermont, transcribed by Jonathan Tracey, compiled and edited by John Heiser, Gettysburg National Military Park Library.

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2 Responses to The Medical Department of Pennsylvania College, Gettysburg

  1. Ken Williams says:

    Gettysburg-Class of 1979 here!

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