Taking the Pulse of Medical Education

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Cover page of a dissertation on the mechanism and physiology of the human head, 1829
“An Inaugural Dissertation on the Mechanism & Physiology of the Human Head,” written by Singleton Jones Cooke M1829 on January 16, 1829.

“The first circumstance connected with the human head, which seems entitled to attention, is its elevated position,” writes Singleton Jones Cooke M1829 in his January 16, 1829, dissertation for his doctoral degree in medicine from Penn. “This is the peculiar characteristic of the dignity of Man, and of his superior rank in the scale of creation.”

In his January 8, 1829, “Essay on Menstruation” Joseph M. Urquiola M1829 ponders, “What is the exact nature of the menstrual fluid?” A native of Trinidad de Cuba, Urquiola was the first Latin American graduate of Penn. “Some consider it a mere hemorrhage, others a perfect secretion.”

These and more than 1,000 other Penn medical dissertations from the last 200 years can now be viewed online, the earliest dating back to 1807. Handwritten on cotton rag paper (some, in such beautiful script that it’s speculated students hired scribes to write the final copies), more than 60,000 pages have been digitized in a project funded by the Council on Library and Information Resources. And at least 5,000 more dissertations, as well as hundreds of volumes of students’ lecture notes, have not yet been digitized.

Penn has more medical dissertations from the 19th century than any other medical school in the country, according to Christopher D. E. Willoughby, visiting fellow with the Penn Medicine and the Afterlives of Slavery project, and author of a new book, Masters of Health: Racial Science in US Medical Schools. “With the sheer volume of the dissertations at Penn you can take the pulse of medical education,” he told Penn Today in August. “You really get a sense of what they were teaching and how students were processing it.”

Founded in 1765, Penn’s School of Medicine was the nation’s first, and about one century later the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania was established, in 1874, as the first teaching hospital in the country. Medical students were required to write dissertations to earn a degree until just after the Civil War.

Some other titles include “An Essay on the Morbid Appearances Observed After Death in the Yellow Fever,” by Edward Lowber C1804 M1807 and “An Account of the Typhoid Fever; Which Prevailed at the Alms House in Philadelphia; During the Spring of 1824,” by Thomas Lacey Smith M1825, as well as 47 essays on cholera, 18 on gastritis, and two on constipation.

“Their mundaneness is what makes them special,” added Willoughby. “They provide interesting, and in some cases disturbing, anecdotes about everyday medical complaints, as well as what doctors thought.”

The dissertations can be viewed for free through the Penn Libraries online catalogue at bit.ly/3mqcH7u. —NP

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