John Morgan was born in 1735, grandson of David Morgan, a Quaker who emigrated to America from Wales around the year 1700. His father was Evan Morgan, a wealthy Philadelphia merchant who lived at the corner of Market and Second Streets and was a friend and neighbor of Benjamin Franklin. After attending a school of great renown for the “thorough instruction given in Latin and Greek,” John Morgan entered the College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania) and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in 1757. Already during the last year there he also began to study medicine, serving as medical and apothecary apprentice interspersed with hospital service on the western front in the French and Indian War (1756–1763).
In 1760 Morgan went to Europe and graduated in medicine from the University of Edinburgh in 1763. He learned clinical medicine in Edinburgh from William Cullen and studied dissection with the Hunters in London. He traveled to Switzerland, Southern France, and Italy, visiting hospitals, medical schools, public institutions, and distinguished people. In Turin he was presented to the then reigning king of Sardinia. In Padua he attended the overcrowded lectures of Morgagni. He had an audience with the Pope and spent an afternoon with Voltaire. He met James Boswell; became a member of scientific and medical societies in Edinburgh, London, and Paris; and developed an international reputation.
Returning to Philadelphia In 1765, he co-founded with William Shippen the Medical School of the College of Philadelphia, which was the first medical school in the American colonies. There he was appointed its first Professor of the Theory and Practice of Medicine. Not always getting along easily with people, he developed academic rivalries with people, especially with his former colleague Shippen.
In October 1775 Morgan was appointed chief physician to the Continental Army. It was a difficult task as he was hampered by logistics, a shortage of supplies, an outbreak of smallpox, and a lack of understanding of health issues by Congress and the military authorities. These facts contributed to his being dismissed by Congress in January 1777, partially through the efforts of his old rival Shippen, who took advantage of the situation and replaced him. Two years later Morgan revenged himself by charging Shippen with fraud and speculation in hospital supplies. Shippen was court-martialed and resigned in 1781.
Disappointed by these events, Morgan returned to private practice in Philadelphia. But as his health began to fail, he withdrew from most of his professional duties and spent his last days in study and reflection. He died in 1789 at age 53. He is remembered as being active in many institutions and organizations, a founding member of the American Philosophical Society, and one of the original fellows of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. He was also a member of the Philadelphia Society for Promoting the Culture of Silk and a significant collector of European art and paleontological specimens.
In her biographical sketch of Morgan, Julia Morgan Harding wrote:
His career opened brilliantly, and ended in shadow. His life, given to useful labor, scientific research, the establishment of public medical instruction in America, and the cause of American independence, was corroded by failure and disappointment. … Notwithstanding this, his latter days, though saddened, were not embittered, and he departed this world in peace…
- Julia Morgan Harding. The Journal of Dr. John Morgan of Philadelphia. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1907.
- “John Morgan: 1735-1789.” Penn People, University of Pennsylvania Libraries. https://archives.upenn.edu/exhibits/penn-people/biography/john-morgan/.
- Whitfield Bell. “The Court Martial of Dr. William Shippen, Jr., 1780.” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 1964;19(3):218.
- Editorial. “John Morgan (1735-1789) founder of American medical education.” JAMA Nov 15, 1965;194(7):825.