The Career and Character of Doctor Philip Syng Physick
It was a crisp October day in 1818 and Graham was enjoying the last few days before medical school classes began at the University of Pennsylvania. As Graham walked along the cobblestones of Market Street, his home for the school year, he noticed a fine carriage parked outside his neighbor’s house. Upon closer inspection, Graham realized that the carriage belonged to his future professor of surgery, Dr. Philip Syng Physick. Inside the house, Dr. Physick was tending a patient with a traumatic brain injury in desperate need of the doctor’s expert surgical skills (1). And because he was anxious to begin his medical education in Philadelphia, Graham took this opportunity to observe both the character and skills of his future professor. In his manner, the doctor was abrupt for he “hated garrulous patients” and would tolerate “no interference from them in the conduct of a case” (2). Consequently, when the patient’s relative approached Physick, he coldly ignored their inquiries stating he had “no time to answer such questions” (1). Dr. Physick’s halting disposition was a characteristic not shared by other doctors of the time, because – unlike Physick – they could not afford to. For instance, Dr. Wistar, who passed away the year Graham arrived in Philadelphia, was known by his patients as an empathetic, respectful, and comforting physician (3). In the same vein, other doctors of the time spent time getting to know the patient and his family, so that they could establish a client base. Thus, Dr. Physick was distinctive in his distaste for the “verbosity of others” (4).
After observing Dr. Physick in Market Street, Graham journeyed from his university home to the doctor’s house on Mulberry (now South Fourth) Street to obtain a ticket for the doctor’s lectures on surgery. Unaware of Dr. Physick’s office hours, Graham arrived at the doctor’s house asking for a ticket, only to be promptly turned away (1). Having learned of Dr. Physick’s strict adherence to his schedule the previous day, Graham left his home determined to obtain a ticket to the doctor’s popular lecture series (1). Yet, fortune was not on Graham’s side this day, for he happened upon an old friend on his way to Physick’s house (1). After the impromptu reunion concluded, Graham began his trip along the cobblestones again. The doctor’s carriage was already waiting when Graham arrived ten minutes late to the doctor’s office (1). Although Dr. Physick conceded to giving Graham a ticket on this occasion, he noted Graham’s failure to respect the doctor’s schedule, saying that “we are obliged to learn the value of time here” as he left to care for his patient (1).
Having just recently come to Philadelphia, Graham had been unconscious of his professor’s regimented lifestyle. Yet, his friends and colleagues had become acquainted with Dr. Physick’s tight schedule over the years (5). Whether the doctor always adhered to a disciplined schedule or his numerous duties, as both a professor and physician, required him to observe a firm schedule remains unclear. Regardless, it was well known that Dr. Physick “never neglected a duty, evaded a risk, or failed in an engagement” (5). In order to meet these numerous engagements, Dr. Physick rose every morning at 4 a.m. to prepare his lecture notes, fully writing out each lecture, and then practicing his words until they were free of errors (4, 5).
As a professor of surgery at the University of Pennsylvania, Doctor Physick maintained his strictly formal and “inflexible” demeanor (1, 5). While he taught, Physick steered away from “rhetorical flourishes” in order to present his surgical knowledge in a “clear and simple” style (1, 5). As a student, Graham similarly observed Physick as a “dignified” man whose words were forever of a “practical utility” (1). Within the lectures that Graham attended, Physick never went beyond observable facts and his own medical experiences (6). Thus, Graham solely learned Dr. Physick’s surgical practices and knowledge, which allowed Graham to take medical facts rather than medical theories back to Virginia.
While his professionalism in the classroom and expertise in the operating room immortalized him as the “Father of American Surgery,” Dr. Physick was not as successful in his personal life. When Graham met the doctor in 1818, Physick had recently ended a fifteen-year marriage to Elizabeth Emler that had resulted in the birth of seven children (3). Although the deed of separation failed to state the reason for the termination of marriage, his deep commitment to medicine may have led to the demise of his family life. Consequently, the professor that Graham came to know was a man that would live “lonely and alone” for the rest of his adult life (3). In his solitary existence after the divorce, Dr. Physick became even more devout to his profession. He left “little time for dining out,” further distancing him from his family (1). This perpetual solitude may have grown tiresome for the famed Dr. Physick during the later stages of his life, perhaps explaining why he allowed Elizabeth’s brother to keep a room in the Physick home after the divorce (1).
Although Graham came to know Dr. Physick as a man that “never open[ed] his lips without uttering…[words] of practical utility,” his letters were more expressive (1). In a letter to a close friend, Dr. Physick spoke of his objections to his daughter Sarah’s impending marriage, admitting that the situation had “occasioned [him] much trouble” and his desire that “this silly affair may terminate” rapidly (7). Within letters to his friends, Dr. Physick’s personal sentiments came alive and gave him a vehicle to express words he so rarely uttered. Though Physick sought to keep his personal opinion of his future son-in-law, Dr. Randolph, private, his sentiments soon became public. This may have been a contributing factor in Dr. Randolph’s opinion that Physick was a man who “seldom smiled” (2).
Though his divorce left Physick isolated from society, he was not always this way. As a promising doctor in London, it is likely that he was a rising member of society (8). Soon after beginning his studies under Dr. John Hunter, his mentor invited him to live in his home and become a co-experimenter (8). His fame continued to grow as he finished his medical education in Edinburgh (2). Physick’s prestige and unique name garnered him attention among his classmates, which culminated in a publicly known poem:
Sing Physic, Sing Physic, for Philip Syng Physick
Is dubbed Doctor Phil for his wonderful skill;
Each sick phiz he’ll physic, he’ll cure every phthisic
Their lips fill with Physic, with potion and pill (2).
This poem continued on for thirteen quatrains and was likely written to tease the talented medical student, but some jealousy may have also contributed to its development. Despite the jokes he suffered at the expense of his unusual three names, such teasing did not impact him professionally, for his achievements were great and many after this poem spread around society (8). During the height of his career, Dr. Physick developed a primitive stomach pump, absorbable ligatures, and surgical instruments for kidney stone removals (9). But his most celebrated contributions to medicine were in the area of ophthalmology, which was his preferred specialty (9).
Physick’s professional accomplishments led his colleagues to describe him as “a truly great and good man” (3). His fellow physicians were not only awed by his novel surgical techniques, but also by his ability to inspire his students in the classroom (5). In the same vein, his teaching capabilities and reputation were greatly admired by his students, who commissioned a portrait of Dr. Physick because they were “desirous of publicly manifesting their admiration of [his] talents” (4). These talents allowed his patients and students, such as Graham, to overlook his jarring personality and benefit from this accomplished physician. Yet, Physick’s dedication to medicine could not salvage his personal life in the eyes of his family. On the other hand, society shall remember Dr. Physick as an extraordinary surgeon despite his undesirable countenance.
Written By: Ann Morris, Washington and Lee University 2012.
- William Alexander Graham, “A Narrative  of Graham’s Journeys, Medical Training and Career 1816-1819 in Lexington, Va., Abingdon, Va., and Philadelphia,” pp. 1-3, Washington and Lee University Library, Special Collections.
- Roberts, G.B. Dr. Physick and His House. The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. 1968, 92, 67-86.
- Historical Markers. Caspar Wistar (1761-1818) Historical Marker. 2011. Online. http://explorepahistory.com/hmarker.php?markerId=1-A-181.
- Edwards, G. Philip Syng Physick. Section of the History of Medicine. 1939, 145-148.
- Simpson, H. The Lives of Eminent Philadelphians, Now Deceased. Philadelphia: William Brotherhead, 1859.
- Albert, D.M. Contributions of Philip Syng Physick. Archives of Ophthalmology. 1964, 72, 725-728.
- Physick, P.S., Physick, H.W. Letters: Philadelphia, Pa., to Henry W. Physick, Rising Sun, Md., and Wilmington, Del. 1810-1821, 1-5.
- Marmelzat, W.L. Philip Syng Physick, The Reluctant Medical Student Who Became “The Father of American Surgery” A Saga for the Bicentennial. J. Dermatologic Surgery and Oncology. 1976, 2, 380-381 and 419-420.
- Williams, S. American Medical Biography: Or, Memoirs of Eminent Physicians. Massachusetts: L. Merriam and Co., 1844.