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William Shippen, Jr.

Photo William Shippen

Surgeons General

WILLIAM SHIPPEN, JR. (Oct. 21, 1736 - July 11, 1808), Director General of the Military Hospitals of the Continental Army, April 11, 1777 - Jan. 3, 1781, was born in Philadelphia, the son of Dr. William and Susannah (Harrison) Shippen.  His father was one of the most prominent medical men of his time, one of the founders of the Pennsylvania Hospital and of the University of Pennsylvania, a trustee for thirty years of Princeton College, and a member of the Continental Congress elected in 1788.  The son attended Rev. Samuel Finley's School at Nottingham in Chester County and the College of New Jersey (Princeton) from which he graduated with the degree of A. B. in 1754.  He was valedictorian of his class and showed such talent that be was urged to study for the ministry. However, he returned to Philadelphia and took up the study of medicine with his father.  In 1758 he went to London where be studied anatomy under John. Hunter and midwifery under the older brother, William.  He obtained his doctorate in medicine from the University of Edinburgh in 1761, presenting a thesis entitled, De Placentae cum Utero Nexu (1761).

After a visit to the schools and hospitals of Paris he returned to Philadelphia in 1762 and immediately began preparations for giving courses in anatomy and midwifery.  He began his anatomical lectures and demonstrations in November 1762 and achieved a notable success though meeting with much criticism and some violence on account of the popular hostility to human dissection.  In 1765 he began his lectures on midwifery, the first systematic instruction in obstetrics given in this country.  He engaged actively in this specialty, though as was customary at the time he left the actual management of the labor in the hands of female midwives.  With the establishment of the medical school of the College of Philadelphia in 1765, Shippen was appointed professor of anatomy and surgery in 1766.  When this school was merged with the University of Pennsylvania in 1791 he was given the chair of anatomy, surgery, and midwifery.  He was on the staff of the Pennsylvania Hospital in 1778-79 and from 1791 to 1802.   He was a member of the American Philosophical Society and was one of the founders of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia and its president from 1805 to 1808.

Shippen's military service began with his appointment on June 15, 1776, to the position of medical director of the Flying Camp, a force of about ten thousand troops, operating in New Jersey, with headquarters at Trenton.  On October 9 Congress directed him to establish a general hospital for the troops with which he was serving and on November 24 passed a resolution giving him supervision of all military hospitals west of the Hudson river, and limiting Director General Morgan's authority to those east of that river.  This order and its administration caused a break in the friendly relations previously existing between the two men, resulting eventually in a serious estrangement, which cast a cloud over the careers of both.  It appears that Shippen was highly critical of Morgan's administration of the medical service and that he made little or no effort to counteract the dissatisfaction among the regimental surgeons.  Following Morgan's separation from the service there was an interval during which there was no head of the medical department.  During this period a plan for the reorganization of the medical service, based upon the British system, was submitted by Shippen and Dr. John Cochran, a man of previous military service.  This plan, approved by Washington, was voted into effect by Congress on April 7, 1777, and on April 11 the medical officers to fill the places created by the act were elected.  Shippen was elected director general, and Cochran physician and surgeon, of the army.  This legislation definitely fixed the status of the director general as executive head of the department.  In the reorganization a deputy director general was provided for each of three military districts, the director general himself retaining supervision over the fourth. An assistant director general was provided for command of each general hospital, and senior surgeons, second surgeons, and surgeons' mates provided for their medical service, with apothecaries, commissaries, matrons, storekeepers, stewards, and nurses for other duties in the hospitals. A physician general and a surgeon general were provided for each military district and a physician and surgeon general for each army.

During the winter of 1776-77 Shippen had collected practically all of the army sick into hospitals at Bethlehem, Easton, and Allentown in the upper Delaware valley, and established his office in Bethlehem. In the latter part of March 1777 the hospital was transferred to Philadelphia.  The service to the sick was much improved under the new system; but it was still far from giving general satisfaction and the same complaints that beset Morgan were renewed.  The care of the sick in the hospitals again at Bethlehem, during the tragic winter of 1777-78, came under particular criticism.  Immediately following his vindication by Congress on May 11, 1779, former Director Morgan addressed a letter to Congress charging Shippen with malpractice and misconduct of his office and declaring himself ready to produce the necessary proof of his charges.  In this action he had the active support of Dr. Benjamin Rush, a former medical officer who laid his resignation from the service to Shippen's ill-will.  Other men of high standing in the medical service supported Morgan's charges.  The specifications against Shippen included ignorance and neglect of his duties, misapplication of hospital supplies and funds and the rendition of false morbidity and mortality reports.  After much correspondence a court-martial was ordered and Shippen appeared before it at Morristown, N. J., on March 15, 1780.  The case was not finally settled until August 18, 1780, when Congress passed a motion to the effect, "That the court-martial having acquitted the said Doctor W. Shippen that he be discharged from arrest."  The original motion calling for confirmation or approval of the verdict could not be carried.  He remained in Philadelphia until November 24 when Congress ordered him to return to the headquarters of the Commander-in-Chief in the highlands of the Hudson.  The medical department had undergone another reorganization by act of Congress on October 6, 1780, and Shippen had been again elected medical director of the army.  He reported at army headquarters in December, but resigned his post on January 3, 1781.

Returning to Philadelphia he resumed practice and again took up his teaching.  His later years were saddened by the death, in 1798, of his only son, a young man of much promise.

After this event he gave up much of his public activities, including his practice and his teaching.  He died at Germantown near the age of seventy-two years.

He had married in London, about 1760, Alice Lee, of a prominent Virginia family, the sister of Francis Lightfoot, William, Richard Henry, and Arthur Lee.

Shippen's character is one not easily understood.  He had marked ability, energy, public spirit, and was gifted with great personal attraction.  His mind, however, was of the contemplative type, well fitted to his teaching career but lacking in creative ability.  His habits of mind and body did not fit him for the rough experiences of army life in the field. His shortcomings as chief of the medical service were largely due to his disinclination to share in any degree in the hardships of his subordinates.  His disposition to avoid by whatever means all personal discomforts and administrative difficulties appears to have brought upon him the stigma of a court-martial.  His career as a medical practitioner and as a teacher was distinguished.  His lectures and demonstrations in the subject of anatomy were highly effective and his teaching of midwifery effected a revolution in the practice of the city.  He unquestionably exerted a marked influence upon the medical profession of his day.  Except for his graduation thesis he appears to have written nothing for publication.

Sources:  L. C. Duncan,  Medical Men in the American Revolution, 1775-1783 (1931);  T. H. S. Hamersly,  Complete Army and Navy Register of the United States, 1776-1887 (1888);  Joseph Carson, History of the Medical Department of the Univ. of Pa. (1869); Dictionary of American Biography, Vol. XVII (1935);  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. 10-13, compiled by James M. Phalen, Colonel, Medical Corps, U.S. Army retired]

For a more recent biography of William Shippen, Jr., see Betsy Copping Corner, William Shippen, Jr.:  Pioneer in American Medical Education.  A Biographical Essay  (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: American Philosophical Society, 1951).