1880-1882: The Philadelphia Physician Factory, Racism, and the Trial of Forbes

Note: This was taken from my rough book draft, so please excuse any typos.

1880 – “If you get into any trouble, I’ll see you through”. (419)”
T.B. Miller to undercover reporters investigating the selling of medical diplomas

In 1880, the London edition of Puck Magazine published a cartoon entitled “The Philadelphia Physician Factory.” The cartoon, and the scandal which inspired it, was originally published in the American version of the magazine and was an embarrassing indication that the undisputed center of the budding medical profession in the United States was riddled with problems. Ultimately, however, the existence of such a scandal shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise in 1880 as it would to 21st-century eyes. Historian Harold J. Abrams said of early Philadelphia physician education that the city had set the standard and that the requirements for the M.D. required that students attend schooling for only “two winters and take each professor’s course of lectures. This pedagogic foible, at first justified as an expediency, became by 1820 the universal practice in American medical schools because it was the custom in Philadelphia. (23)”

The scandal, which saw the light of day only because members of the Philadelphia press had taken the initiative to investigate the rumors surrounding the selling of medical diplomas, cast a shadow not only on the reputation of those who practiced medicine in Philadelphia, but also in the United States. In Abraham’s wonderful and impressively-detailed work, The Extinct Medical Schools of Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia, the complex webs of deception and corruptions are described. It was on February 27, 1880 that the revelations began. Two reporters from The Philadelphia Record would contact the Dean of the Philadelphia University of Medicine and Surgery. For the mere fee of $100 each (plus some textbooks), Miller promised that he could make them practitioners of medicine, with no actual formal schooling. Diplomas would be provided, with one of three institutions listed on the document: The Philadelphia University of Medicine and Surgery, the Quaker City Business College of the Arts and Sciences or the Pennsylvania Medical University. Seals were to be applied to the certificates the next day. For Miller, however, that was the end of his giving – the next day he would receive the news that the two ‘students’ were undercover reporters and that his activities had been discovered.

Miller would not be the only ‘physician’ revealed as charlatan in the course of the scandal however, with other major players, Dr. Buchanan and Dr. Paine, also unveiled in the New York Times and the Chester Times in the same year. “There are some names uncomfortably near this city, whose owners’ cheeks will tingle when they see their names in print, reads the latter article, and the news would hardly be restricted to the localities in which they occurred. By July 30 word had been sent from Secretary of State William M. Evans to “Pennsylvania Governor H.M. Hoyt, urging him to take steps to prevent further damage to American medical institutions such as had been done by the sale abroad of fraudulent diplomas from the American University of Philadelphia. (449)

In 1882, another scandal would drape the Philadelphia medical community in shame and distrust. Dr. Forbes, ironically the same Dr. Forbes who created the Anatomy Act in order to secure an ample supply of ‘legal’ cadavers for medical research, was indicted for his collusion in the stealing of bodies from an African-American burial ground. To add appalling insult to profound injury, rather than providing apologies to the families, the students and Dr. Forbes showed abject disrespect to the aggrieved families.

“Waiting for Dr. Forbes’ lecture to begin on December 7, the students yelled threats to the reporters who had shown up, physically expelled several, and sang racist songs threatening “niggers” with more body snatching. When the story first broke at the college, one student was reported to have said, “I shouldn’t mind if we were [mobbed]. There are 600 of us, and I guess we might have some fun. We might make a few fresh stiffs too.”c The same disrespectful behavior was also shown at the trial As Alan Braddock writes, some of them mockingly sang abolitionist songs and threatened black passersby near the medical college with murder and dissection during the time of the trial. This wouldn’t be the first, or last, time that some medical students and their faculty members took a callous view of life and death, to the detriments of their own reputations.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s