Research Program History

William Shippen

The University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, founded in 1765, is the oldest medical school in the United States. Over its long history, the institution has made a number of major contributions to the development of surgery and surgical research in America. William Shippen served as the first professor of anatomy, surgery and midwifery from 1765-1805. Shippen was succeeded by Philip Syng Physick in 1805. Included among Physick's many lasting contributions was the development of absorbable suture. Physick was one of the first American surgeons to gain international recognition and is often referred to as "The Father of American Surgery". In 1877, the first fully endowed surgical chair, The John Rhea Barton Professorship of Surgery was established by a $50,000 gift from Sarah Rittenhouse Barton. D. Hayes Agnew was the first to hold the Barton chair. Agnew's important contributions included the development of artery forceps and animal experimentation on the behavior of clot and healing bone. The medical school class of 1889 honored Agnew by commissioning the American painter Thomas Eakins to paint the Agnew Clinic. Today, The Agnew Clinic can be viewed in the foyer of the John Morgan Building.

Philip Syng Physick

In 1900, J. William White succeeded John Ashurst to become the third John Rhea Barton Professor. Although a clinical surgeon, White was convinced of the important role of basic research in surgical practice. When the Medical Laboratories were constructed in 1904, White funded a laboratory for surgical research. In 1906 J. William White appointed J. Edwin Sweet as an associate in experimental surgery to establish America's first surgical research department. White, who was independently wealthy, also provided funds in his will to endow a professorship in research surgery. In 1928, I.S. Ravdin was appointed the first J. William White Professor of Surgical Research.

J. William White

In 1935 Ravdin secured a $2.24 million bequest to Penn by George Leib Harrison, a chemical manufacturer and the department was renamed in honor of Harrison, and his wife. The endowment supported not only experimental costs but, also provided for fellows and support staff. The initial group of Harrison Research Fellows included: Jonathan E. Rhoads, M.D. (total parenteral nutrition), Julian Johnson, M.D. (thoracic surgery), and John Gibbon, M.D. (developer of the heart-lung machine).

Today, the tradition of providing research opportunities to surgical residents continues in the Harrison Department with 30 research and postdoctoral fellows. The Department has over 400 members, covers 30,000 square feet of research space and has yearly funding that exceeds $8.3 million (including $6.1 million in annual NIH funding). Areas of active research range from large animal physiology to molecular medicine and gene therapy.