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The Past, Present, and Future of Medicine

Philadelphia is widely known as a city of medical firsts. Over 250 years ago, America’s first hospital, Pennsylvania Hospital, was founded in Philadelphia. Nearly a decade and a half later, the University of Pennsylvania established America’s first school of medicine. 109 years after that, the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania became America’s first teaching hospital. 

Today, Philadelphia remains one of America’s epicenters of medical innovation. The greater Philadelphia area is home to five medical schools, over 50 hospitals and health care companies, and around 200 medical research organizations. Undeniably, Philly’s heritage in healthcare is rich, and the city continues to celebrate its medical culture through many avenues. The College of Physicians of Philadelphia seeks to bridge this medical history to the contemporary world. 

The College of Physicians of Philadelphia was founded in 1787 and is America’s oldest private medical society. Since then, the College has blossomed into Philadelphia’s hub for teaching and advancing the cause of public health, vaccinations, and art within medicine. 

One of the College’s teaching facilities, the Mütter Museum, is home to over 25,000 medical objects and specimens, displayed throughout the building and presented in the museum’s various exhibitions. One of the museum’s permanent exhibitions, the Hyrtl Skull Collection, houses 139 human skulls collected by anatomist Josef Hyrtl. Another exhibition, named “Our Finest Clothing,” teaches its visitors about the remarkable nature of skin and how humans have long used this organ as a canvas for expression. 

“We want to be able to create this place where people can not only learn about their bodies and the science of medicine, but also learn about the story behind it, the history behind it,” Amanda McCall, one of the Mütter museum’s educators, mentions. Throughout McCall’s time at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, she has helped facilitate tours for various groups of people, including high schoolers, retirement communities, undergraduate and graduate students, and more. She works with the purpose of creating art out of medicine through storytelling.

“When you’re talking about science and art, a lot of times, people tend to polarize them—that they are two opposite things that don’t inhabit the same sphere. But I think that when we’re talking about a pure science, like medicine, it is important to the museum to involve the story side—the art and humanity of it,” McCall says. 

Recently, the Mütter Museum opened an exhibit called “Illustrating Medicine” that tells stories through medical artwork. The exhibit features centuries–old illustrations of the human anatomy and herbal medicines, many of which have never been revealed to the public before. McCall’s belief is that, by unveiling the humanity of medical science through stories, the museum helps to make medicine a more accessible topic to all generations and groups of people, especially students. 

The College of Physicians of Philadelphia’s Center of Education has taken upon itself a vital responsibility to empower students through a myriad of educational programs. The center’s initiatives include the Girls One Diaspora Club, the Hinkson Holloway Mentorship Program, Teen Health Week, and many more. Each of these programs focus on educating various demographics of students who are interested in STEM and healthcare–based fields.

For example, the Girls One Diaspora Club is an after–school internship program for Philadelphia teen girls who are of African descent or are first–generation Americans with an interest in STEM–based careers. This club serves as both a safe space for its members to talk about their experiences adjusting to a new culture, and an academic hub for opportunities within STEM. The young women who participate in this program are provided with mentorships that focus on tutoring, career exploration, and preparing for a college setting. 

Another of the College’s programs, the Hinkson Holloway Mentorship Program, was founded with the purpose of supporting young Black men in exploring and excelling in medical careers. As of current, this scholarship program continues to serve the Philadelphia community by encouraging young men to pursue medicine. The College recognizes that the process of working towards a career in healthcare is a long and challenging journey, which is exactly the reason why the institute provides an abundance of support to all of its program participants. 

The College’s initiatives not only focus on advising students towards careers in medicine, but they also encourage students to take charge of their physical and mental health. Every year, the College hosts Teen Health Week℠, an initiative that raises awareness about a variety of issues that affect teens. Throughout the program, students take part in interactive activities that facilitate them in forming healthy, lifelong habits. These activities include lessons about topics like sexual development and consent, looking at violence through a mental health perspective, and investigating the impact of vaccines. Teen Health Week℠’s impact is not just felt in Philadelphia, but across the world too, as the program also runs in locations outside of the United States, such as the SOS Children’s Villages in Uganda. 

The College of Physicians of Philadelphia is not only known for its programs and the Mütter Museum, but for its enormous Historical Medical Library and its award–winning educational website, the History of Vaccines. The Historical Medical Library was established in 1788, serving the Philadelphia community as the city’s predominant medical library for over 150 years. The library is home to hundreds of invaluable manuscripts and texts dating back centuries. Today, the library facilitates the learning of a variety of scholars, writers, medical professionals, and students. 

Another of the College’s impactful initiatives, the History of Vaccines, is a detailed chronicle of immunizations throughout history. The website includes a combination of articles, blog posts, and biographies of various scientists, most notably, Edward Jenner, the father of vaccines. The History of Vaccines has not only chronicled the development of vaccines over time, but addresses controversies surrounding vaccines, such as their hypothetical relationship to neurodevelopmental disorders. By having research, data, and general information on vaccines readily available to the public, the College facilitates public understanding of medical concepts that may seem complicated at first glance. In doing so, the College works towards clearing any misconceptions or biases that people hold because of a lack of understanding about subjects like vaccines.

Looking towards the future,  Dr. René Najera, a Chair for Public Health and an editor for History of Vaccines, believes it’s crucial for the College to maintain its ability to adapt to society’s ever–evolving medical scene.

“The College has been around for 300 years, so it is important that it manages to keep up with advancements in technology and changes in society, in order to meet the needs of Philadelphians,” Dr. Najera comments. He also mentions that the College holds long–standing relationships with medical institutions around Philadelphia and that the College looks forward to continuing collaboration with these schools towards making medicine more inclusive to the public.

The College is no stranger to quickly adapting to national public health emergencies and deriving modern solutions for medical dilemmas. Dr. Najera tells the story of “when the Yellow Fever epidemic in the late–1700s hit, physicians [from the College] came together because something needed to be done.” Due to the diligence of these physicians, the Yellow Fever epidemic was put to a halt in Philadelphia and hasn’t returned since.

During the most recent public health emergency in the United States, the COVID–19 pandemic, it was vital for the College to find ways to transform its teaching to better accommodate the public. 

“COVID caused us to figure things out so quickly,” McCall recalls. “I definitely noticed that it has offered me the opportunity to teach lessons and engage with the public in parts of the world that might not have an opportunity to visit the museum because of geography. One of our other educators taught a lesson to a museum group in Latvia. While it was inconvenient figuring this out at the last minute, in the process we were able to develop something that gave us this really amazing opportunity to engage with people we might not have had before.”

Diversifying its audience and program participants has been a long–standing goal of the College. The College frequently branches out in order to bring in fellows from different fields of study. As McCall mentions, the College also strives to not just educate the Philadelphia community, but the rest of the world too. While the ways in which the College serves the public have evolved over time, the institution’s main mission has stayed consistent: to uphold the values of medicine and do good for the people of Philadelphia and beyond.

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