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John Morgan

Photo John Morgan

Surgeons General

JOHN MORGAN (June 10, 1735 - Oct. 15, 1789), Director General and Physician-in-Chief of the American Hospital, Oct. 17, 1775 - Jan. 9, 1777, was born in Philadelphia, the son of Evan and Joanna (Miles) Morgan.  His father had emigrated from Wales, settling in Philadelphia, and had become a successful merchant.  The family were Quakers.  John Morgan attended the Academy conducted by the Rev. Samuel Finley at Nottingham, Chester County, and received the degree of B. A. from the College of Philadelphia in 1757 in the first class graduated from that institution. In the meantime he bad been studying medicine for a number of years, for some time as an apprentice to Dr. John Redman a leading practitioner of Philadelphia.  In April 1758 he joined the British army operating against Fort Duquesne as a first lieutenant of the line but his duties were largely the care of the sick.  After two years of military service he resigned and sailed for London in 1760 to resume the study of his profession.  For the next year he "walked" the hospitals of London making the acquaintance of the leading lights of the medical profession of that time.  Later he attended the University of Edinburgh where he received his M. D. degree in 1763.  Then followed a term of study in the hospitals of Paris and Rome. Returning to London he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society.  He was already a licentiate of the College of Physicians of London and a member of the College of Physicians of Edinburgh.  During all of his European sojourn he was planning the creation of a medical school in his home city and when he returned there in 1765 he carried with him the recommendations of a number of British medical educators in furtherance of that plan.  He submitted his proposals to the board of trustees of the College of Philadelphia and on May 3, 1765, he was elected professor of the theory and practice of medicine in the new medical department.

Thereby was created the first medical professorship in America.  At the commencement exercises of the college at the end of May he delivered his famous address entitled, A discourse upon the Institution of Medical Schools in America, which he had prepared before leaving Paris. When the school opened the following October, William Shippen, Jr., filled the chair of anatomy and surgery, Adam Kuhn that of botany and materia medica, and Benjamin Rush that of chemistry.  Morgan limited his practice to internal medicine and was one of the first physicians in America to give up dispensing drugs and turn over that business to the practitioners of pharmacy.  Not only was he in a short time in possession of a highly lucrative practice, but he enjoyed high standing in the arts and letters as well as in society.  He became one of the leading men of the Philadelphia of his day.  He was one of the founders of the American Philosophical Society in 1769 and contributed papers to its Transactions.  For years he was physician to the Pennsylvania Hospital.  The beginning of strained relations between the colonies and Britain moved him to write The Reciprocal Advantage of a Perpetual Union between Great Britain and her American Colonies, in 1766.  But with increasing friction he definitely aligned himself with the cause of the colonies.  His service in the Revolutionary army began on October 17, 1775, when he was elected by Congress director general and physician-in-chief of the American hospital "in the room of" Dr. Benjamin Church.  He accepted promptly and at once reported for duty to General Washington at Cambridge.  Here he was confronted by an appalling situation in which he found unequipped hospitals overcrowded with an unsegregated variety of patients and manned by incompetent personnel without the implements of their profession.  Typhoid fever, dysentery, malaria, and smallpox were rife among the troops.  He was able to do much to remedy these chaotic conditions. He began the campaign for vaccination by publishing Recommendation of Inoculation According to Baron Dimsdale's Method (1776).  He collected medicines and hospital supplies, instituted new examinations for medical officers, and brought about the beginning of system in the medical organization.  He inaugurated a plan to supply to each regimental surgeon a well stocked medical chest. By the time the British evacuated Boston in April 1776 he had brought about fairly satisfactory conditions. His orders to transfer the hospital to New York brought new problems. A branch of the hospital had to be left at Cambridge to care for the patients that could not travel.  He was able to collect large quantities of blankets, rugs, bed sacks, and pillows and these together with a considerable stock of medicine he transported to New York, where he established his hospital.  The disastrous campaign which began with the battle of Long Island and resulted in the evacuation of Manhattan island and the withdrawal to New Jersey and Westchester completely disorganized the frail system that had been built up.  His chief difficulty was with the regimental surgeons, whose demands for supplies he was not able to satisfy, and who were persisting in maintaining regimental hospitals.  He had collected in some way the supplies for his hospital and be was impatient that the regimental surgeons had not provided for themselves from the facilities of the neighborhood from which they came. Following a conference with the regimental surgeons Morgan submitted to Congress a set of regulations for the guidance of the medical service, remarkable in its scope and in its detail. Thus was suggested a system of medical supply by means of "Continental druggists" entirely independent of the director general and issuing directly to the regimental surgeons.  This system was adopted and functioned for a time with but scant success.  Another provision called for the abolition of regimental hospitals, but when put into effect it had only limited compliance from the regimental surgeons.  Up to this time there had been a distinct line of demarcation between medical officers serving with troops and those serving in hospitals, their duties being in no way interchangeable.  The inequalities existing between the two groups were removed, but without entirely healing the breach between them.  Continued dissatisfaction was still rife among the regimental surgeons.  They increased their involved in this efforts to undermine Morgan with Congress agitation was Dr. William Shippen, Morgan's colleague in the Philadelphia Medical School and now Medical Director of the Flying Camp, operating in New Jersey.  On October 9, 1776, Congress passed a resolution dividing the jurisdiction over army  hospitals.  All those east of the Hudson river were to remain under the control of Morgan, while those to the west of the river were assigned to Shippen's control.  Morgan supervised the medical service with the army in Westchester in such a manner as to win the praise of General Washington.  From New York the general hospital was moved to North Castle and after the battle of White Plains, to Peekskill. A branch was established at Stamford, Conn. In November Morgan went to Philadelphia for the purpose of obtaining from Congress an explanation of the resolution dividing the authority over hospitals.  He was unable to obtain a hearing, but was privately informed that the arrangement was to stand.  In the meantime the agitation of the regimental surgeons continued unabated and was augmented by complaints from the Northern army where Medical Director Samuel Stringer had from the beginning denied and resisted Morgan's authority.  On January 9, 1777, Congress, without consulting Washington and without holding any hearing, passed a resolution dismissing both Morgan and Stringer from the army.  Thus ended the army career of a man who never had a chance of a success.  A man of high character and ability, of tireless energy under every discouragement, he made a gallant struggle against the impossible.  If the medical service of this period of the war was a failure, so was every other service of the army, and the army command itself.  An army of amateurs was pitted against professionals and only the costly lessons of failure could equalize them. Morgan retired a disappointed and broken man, the victim of public clamor against failures which were more chargeable to Congress than to any army service.

Stung by the injuries of his arbitrary dismissal, Morgan prepared and widely circulated his Vindication of his Public Character in the Station of Director General of the Military Hospital and Physician-in-Chief to the American Army.  Brought to the attention of Congress, it was referred to a committee, but no report was made upon it until May 12, 1779.  This report, unanimously approved by Congress was as follows:

"Whereas, by report of the Medical Commission confirmed by Congress on the ninth of August 1777, it appears that Doctor John Morgan, late Director General, and Chief Physician of the General Hospital of the United States, had been removed from office on the ninth of January 1777, by reason of the general complaint of persons of all rank in the army, and the critical state of affairs at that time: and that the said Doctor John Morgan requesting an inquiry into his conduct, it was thought proper that a committee of Congress should be appointed for that purpose: and whereas, on the eighteenth day of September last, such a committee was appointed before whom the said Doctor John  Morgan had in a most satisfactory manner  vindicated his conduct in every respect, as Director General and Physician-in-Chief, upon the testimony of the Commander-in-Chief, General officers, officers in the general hospital department and other officers in the army showing that the said Director General did conduct himself ably and faithfully in the discharge of the duties of his office, therefore

Resolved that Congress are satisfied with the conduct of Doctor John Morgan while acting as Director General and Physician-in-Chief in the general hospitals of the United States, and that this  resolution be published."

This was a handsome apology, but it was long delayed and there was no word in it in regard to a restoration to the service.  It could not entirely bolster the broken spirit which Morgan carried to the end of his days.  He had been nourishing his resentment against his successor, Shippen, and now, his own record vindicated, he preferred against that officer, charges of malpractice and misconduct of his office.  With the active support of Dr. Benjamin Rush, he pushed the charges before Congress and the army command until Shippen was ordered before a court-martial. Following his retirement from the army Morgan took up his practice and his teaching in Philadelphia.  However, he withdrew more and more from contact with public affairs and in 1785 he resigned from the office of physician to the Pennsylvania Hospital.  He continued to hold the chair of medicine in the medical school until his death in his native city at the age of fifty-four.

He was married on September 4, 1765, to Mary Hopkinson, daughter of Thomas and Mary Hopkinson, who died in 1785.  They had no children.  Their burial place is in the churchyard of St. Peter’s in Philadelphia.

Sources:  L. C. Duncan, Medical Men of the American Revolution, 1775-1783 (1931); John Thacher,  American Medical Biography (1828);   Joseph Carson, History of the Medical Department of the Univ. of Pa. (1869);  C. W. Norris, Early History of Medicine in Philadelphia (1886);  J. A. Morgan,  History of the Family of Morgan (1902);   T. H. S. Hamersly, Complete Army and Navy Register of the United States, 1776-1887 (1888);  J. E. Pilcher,  Surgeon Generals of the Army  (1905).

[Extracted from "Chiefs of the Medical Department, U.S. Army 1775-1940, Biographical Sketches,"  Army Medical Bulletin, No. 52, April 1940, pp. 5-9, compiled by James M. Phalen, Colonel, Medical Corps, U.S. Army retired]

For a more recent account of John Morgan, see Whitfield J. Bell, Jr., John Morgan: Continental Doctor  (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 1965).