Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

Related Topics

West of Broad
A collection of articles about the area west of Broad Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Philadelphia Medicine
The first hospital, the first medical school, the first medical society, and abundant Civil War casualties, all combined to establish the most important medical center in the country. It's still the second largest industry in the city.

The characteristic American behavior called volunteerism got its start with Benjamin Franklin's Junto, and has been a source of comment by foreign visitors ever since. It's still a very active force.

With a long history of welcoming and assisting the poor, Philadelphia has always risked swamping the lifeboat by attracting more of them than it can handle.

Touring Philadelphia's Western Regions
Philadelpia County had two hundred farms in 1950, but is now thickly settled in all directions. Western regions along the Schuylkill are still spread out somewhat; with many historic estates.

Favorite Reflections
In no particular order, here are the author's own favorites.

Favorites - II
More favorites. Under construction.

Old Blockley (P.G.H.)

{Old Blockley}
Old Blockley

For a long time, the Philadelphia General Hospital was the largest hospital in town, even growing briefly to seven thousand patients during the Civil War, but leveling off at about three thousand at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. At the end of World War II, it had shrunk to about 1500 beds, but it was Medicare and Medicaid in 1965 which finally did it in. By 1977 it was costing the City of Philadelphia about five million dollars a year beyond its revenues to run the place with only 300 patients, while the running expenses of the local private hospitals were actually less, per patient. Titles XVIII(Medicare) and XVIV(Medicaid) of the Social Security act constituted Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, and in effect they made every patient at PGH resemble a walking government check in the mind of hospital administrators. The local hospital association made the argument to the Mayor Rizzo that everybody would be better off if the hospital closed and those government checks were directed to the local voluntary institutions. After a few years, the federal government inevitably squeezed the generosity out of the bargain they would of course now like to abandon. But that's the way it goes. PGH is gone and it isn't coming back. The eighteen acres in Blockley Township, now West Philadelphia, were given to the University of Pennsylvania next door, and gigantic amounts of federal money were contributed to the building of skyscrapers replacements for the original PGH. Ironically, the two hundred children's beds now on the location are fewer in numbers than the three hundred adults once considered too uneconomically few to maintain, and the cost per day of hospitalization is roughly ten times the PGH cost which had been described as unsupportable. The rest of the real estate is built up with buildings involved in medical research, which is also an activity dedicated to working for its own extinction. Discovering a cheap cure for cancer would quickly create a need to fill the vacancies with something else. No one regrets this system of creative destruction, but everyone should regret the diminution of the spirit of local philanthropy which underlay it.

PGH was one of a dozen or so big-city charity hospitals, like Bellevue in New York, Charity in New Orleans, or Cook County Hospital in Chicago. Of these hospitals, PGH had surely been the best, and at the turn of the Twentieth Century a Mayor's commission issued a report about the place which began, "Philadelphia can surely be proud...." Having worked in Bellevue and having visited most of the rest, I can testify that was likely true. When PGH was finally torn down, the walls and floors had such substantial construction that changing the wiring and plumbing to some other purpose had become almost impossible. The PGH nurses were famous for running. Although the alcoholic and drug-addicted patients might be called the dregs of society, the alacrity of the student nurses in running them bedpans or answering other calls, was spectacular to watch. When a doctor came on the floor, they jumped to their feet and were usually ready with the patient's charts, unmasked. Unlike Bellevue, where the floors were creaky and wooden, the open wards at PGH were spacious, clean, well maintained and equipped. At Bellevue, the forty-bed wards were crowded with sixty or seventy patients, so close together you could almost roll from one end of the room to the other without touching the floor. I can remember seeing one seventeen-year-old Bellevue student nurse tending such award at night alone, the intern sharpening needles, and the medical resident developing electrocardiograms in the darkroom. None of this would have seemed acceptable at PGH.

{Dr. William Osler}
Dr. William Osler

Old Blockley was the place where modern systems of medical education originated. Up until William Osler came to Philadelphia, medical education mostly consisted of attending eight hours of lectures a day. Osler had an electrifying personality and wandered among the sick at PGH with a train of students following him. He is much quoted, and once suggested his obituary ought to read, "Here lies the man who took the students into the wards." A somewhat more elegant statement of the value of the practical experience was included in his dedication speech at the Boston Library: "To treat patients without books is to sail an uncharted sea. To read books without seeing patients is never to go to sea at all. Osler was somewhat underappreciated during his time in Philadelphia and went on to found the medical school at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. Nevertheless, the main reason he later left John Hopkins and went to Oxford was his dismay at the adoption of the "full-time" system, which is to say the faculty stopped having a private practice of their own to act as a gold standard for their research and teaching. When all is said and done, there are some areas of discomfort in the transition of students from observers to actors. The PGH system of learning surgery was commonly reduced to a slogan, "See one, do one, teach one,"; things have progressed to the point where it is probably right for the public to insist on greater supervision and control than the old almshouse provided.

The disappearance of old Blockley ended a controversy, or even something of a mystery, about which was the oldest hospital in America, PGH or the Pennsylvania Hospital at 8th and Spruce. There had been an infirmary in Old almshouse at Eleventh Street, and there is no doubt the almshouse was there first. PGH grew out of the almshouse. However, there were many comments at the time of the founding of the Pennsylvania Hospital that it was now the first; that's a strange thing to say when the almshouse was three blocks away. Social historians need to look into the mindset of colonial America, which seems to have included the distinction between the worthy poor and the unworthy poor. Somehow, the founding principal of the Pennsylvania Hospital was to get people back to work who were capable of productive work, possibly even paying for itself in that way. In their minds, apparently just giving solace and help to those who were down and out was not quite the same thing.

Originally published: Friday, June 23, 2006; most-recently modified: Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Please remove that poor guy's Social Security number.
Posted by: Concerned citizen    |   May 29, 2018 1:33 PM
According to my Birth Certificate I was born July 11, 1972 to Susan Margaret Doyle and Gerald Reif, Sr at P.G.H. (Philadelphia General Hospital and I was looking for any records that are available. My name is Michael Edward Reif, 07/11/1972, and my Social Security Number is 210-48-7157, PA ID# 24456661.
Posted by: Michael Edward Reif   |   Jun 24, 2016 1:04 PM
I was born November 13, 1947 (mother Emma Williams)in Philadelphia General Hospital. I was a premature baby and would like to know how I can get any copies of my birth record and how many days I stayed in the hospital. Thank you kindly, Gloria Joan Williams
Posted by: Gloria Joan Williams   |   Apr 15, 2016 5:06 AM
Hi I gave brith to two sons at this hospital there name 1.Anthony Lee Walker -born- October 3,1967 2.Andre Walker- born- August 11.1968 I would like to no what happen to there medical records if you can supply me with this information Please E-mail at , Thanks
Posted by: Thay Walker Shippen   |   Jul 11, 2014 1:58 PM
I was born at PGH on 4.4.62. Looking for parent information on birth cert. I don't live in Phila. Can I access this information online?
Posted by: Mary Ann Fisher   |   Apr 22, 2014 6:19 PM
Hi, I was born in PGH I would like to have my birth records.I was born in 1961 please i help me. Thank You
Posted by: Francine Chase   |   Jan 25, 2014 3:32 AM
I enjoyed the article.I'm a former student nurse and then started my nursing career at PGH. Very well written history. We gave very good care there as it was closing patients who had used other hospitals realized they were special to us and wanted to come back, but it was too late.
Posted by: Maggie   |   Jun 24, 2013 6:11 PM
My grandmother died at PGH many years ago, I wanted to know if her records can be obtained? She died in 1944. I am working on my family's genealogy and we would like to have her medical records.
Posted by: Pat   |   May 11, 2013 3:38 PM
I, too, am seeking patient records from Philadelphia General Hospital. Specifically, I am looking for information on a patient on or about June 6, 1912. I did contact City of Philadelphia, Records Division but was told that the only information they have is on doctors and nurses. Are patient records maintained elsewhere? I call to reached at
Posted by: Joanna Yuninger   |   Mar 10, 2012 9:33 AM
You have shed a ray of snushnie into the forum. Thanks!
Posted by: Parmelia   |   Nov 23, 2011 10:24 PM
How can one gain access to their medical records from PGH?

Please contact me at:
Posted by: Sandy   |   Mar 6, 2011 6:54 PM
I would like to know where the old medical records of patients are kept and who I can contact for information. I can be emailed at: Thank you in advance for your help.
Posted by: Carol Roberts   |   Sep 30, 2010 10:31 AM
I would like to how to locate records from PGH from 1967-1968. plz email me at
Posted by: Taabu Porter   |   Dec 20, 2009 10:33 PM
All of the PGH record/archives are at the City od Phila Records Division at 30th and Market Streets--near 30th Street Station--old Inquirer Building. All student records are there also. You may want to call the city to check that it is correct.
Posted by: jeanne kiefner   |   Aug 8, 2009 1:51 PM
I would like to know what happen to the medical records of the patients when the hosptal closed down. If you can supply me with this information. please e-mail me at Thank You for your time,looking to hear from you soon. Esther Williams
Posted by: Esther Williams   |   Mar 18, 2009 3:13 PM

I was born on June 17 1968 in PGH, a premature baby. I was hoping there was records somewhere of children born here.
I wanted some history of the hospital around the time of my birth

In particular, what is the name of the OBSTETRICIAN on staff that day? WHAT was the prenatal unit like at PGH?

If you are able to supply me with any information, please email me: Tanya Lewis

Posted by: tanya lewis   |   Jun 23, 2008 4:40 PM