Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Dr. William Shippen, surgeon and educator in colonial America

William Shippen Jr. Painting by Charles Wilson Peale after a portrait by Gilbert Stuart. Via Wikimedia.

William Shippen Jr. (1736–1808) was a prominent medical person in early American history. Born in Philadelphia in 1736, he came from a well-connected family and received his training at the University of Edinburgh, at the time considered the best medical school in the English-speaking world. He returned to Philadelphia in 1762, and with John Morgan opened the first medical school in the American colonies, the Medical College of Philadelphia (now the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania).

Shippen was a dedicated teacher and clinician. As professor at the medical school, Shippen taught courses in anatomy, surgery, and midwifery, and was one of the first physicians in America to teach using cadavers. He introduced new surgical techniques such as amputation at the hip joint and ovariotomy, and he advocated for public health measures such as vaccination against smallpox. He was known for his engaging teaching style and clinical emphasis, instructing students at the Pennsylvania Hospital where he served as physician.

Shippen also played a role in the American Revolution. He served as Director General of the Medical Department of the Continental Army and chief physician of the Continental Army from 1777 to 1781. Responsible for overseeing the medical care of the American soldiers, he instituted valuable reforms to battlefield medicine and the care of wounded soldiers. He faced many challenges in this role, including a shortage of supplies and personnel, and came into conflict with his predecessor, John Morgan, who with the support of Benjamin Rush accused him of incompetence and corruption. He was charged with having sold hospital stores as his own, speculated in goods required by the hospitals as his own, kept no books, falsified his reports to Congress. He was acquitted1 and remained in his position until 1781, when he resigned.

After the war, Shippen returned to his work in medical education and practice. He became professor of anatomy and surgery at the University of the State of Pennsylvania and rejoined the staff of the Pennsylvania Hospital. He was one of the founders of the College of Physicians in 1787, was elected to the American Philosophical Society, and trained many of the next generation of American physicians.


  1. Whitfield Bell. The Court Martial of Dr. William Shippen, Jr., 1780. Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 1964;19(3):218.

GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.