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The Founding of Jefferson Medical College

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George McClellan, Founder of JMC, daguerreotype, ca. mid-1840s.

The first documentation of what would become Thomas Jefferson University was a brief letter to the Trustees of little Jefferson College located in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania (west of Pittsburgh) dated June 2, 1824. The letter was a formal application to establish a medical department college with a faculty of four to be located in Philadelphia.

"Gentlemen: -- The undersigned, believing, upon mature consideration, that the establishment of a second medical school in Philadelphia will be advantageous to the public, not less than to themselves, have formed themselves into a Medical Faculty, with the intention of establishing such a school, and they hereby offer to the Trustees of Jefferson College to become connected with that Institution, on the conditions herewith submitted; subject to such modifications, as on a full and free explanation, shall be found satisfactory to the parties severally concerned. The undersigned beg leave to submit herewith, the plan which they have devised, for forming the Faculty contemplated, and for conducting the concerns of the same - open to amendments and alterations in the manner already proposed.
      Signed by order of the Faculty,
            Joseph Klapp, MD
            George McClellan, MD
            John Eberle, MD
            Jacob Green, Esq."
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Jefferson College campus, Canonsburg, PA, postcard, ca. 1910.

The story behind this reserved epistle is a tale of intrigue and boldness with Dr. George McClellan as the father and midwife to the nascent medical school.

The unnamed "first" medical school was The University of Pennsylvania, which established its "Medical Department" (first in the English Colonies) in 1765 and had successfully quashed all previous attempts to establish a competitive medical college in Philadelphia. It may have been little comfort to Penn administrators to learn that the first rival medical school was founded by one of their own, George McClellan, who had graduated there in 1819. A brilliant surgeon and anatomist, McClellan set up a clinical practice in town and soon began lectures to a large following of private students. His reputation as a heroic surgeon, taking high-risk patients in major operations prior to the invention of anesthesia, won him many admirers and critics. When he attempted to obtain a charter for his small but successful clinic, the Commonwealth’s Legislature rejected his application, influenced by the powerful Penn lobby. The hotheaded 28 year-old made his move and, along with select influential colleagues, sent the above letter to Jefferson College. Before the month's end, the College had agreed to his terms and in a formal letter certifying the arrangement, JMC was born on October 30, 1824.

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Certificate establishing Jefferson College’s Medical Department by its Board of Trustees, Oct. 30, 1824.

The nascent medical school soon moved from Dr. McClellan’s offices to a leased warehouse building on Prune Street (currently 518 Locust Walk, SE corner of Washington Square), the recently vacated Tivoli Theater. By spring of 1825 an infirmary for the poor (one of the nation’s first outpatient clinics) was established within the college building; an innovative idea in medical education of the time. The opportunity for direct observation of surgical procedures attracted many students to JMC’s program.

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Tivoli Theater building, (Medical Hall, 1825-28), first home of JMC, drawing by Frank H. Taylor, ca. 1920s.

The shaky yet noticeable success during the first year of McClellan’s venture was enough to prompt University of Pennsylvania to send a protest (October 25, 1825) to the Pennsylvania Legislature in an attempt to prohibit JMC from awarding MD degrees to its first graduating class, expected to commence in March 1826. Learning of the pending vote only the day before the Legislature’s roll call for April 7, Dr. McClellan, Professor of Surgery and Anatomy, set off in his horse and buggy and headed for the capital building in Harrisburg, one hundred miles away. Stopping that evening in Lancaster at the house of a colleague, he refused supper and swapped horse and sulky in order to ride all night to Harrisburg. Fate assisted McClellan’s resolve in the form of a broken axle to the stage coach, which was carrying University personnel who intended to prevent Jefferson’s advocate from speaking to the Legislature. On the morning of the 7th, McClellan appealed to the lawmakers and urgently informed them of the action attempted by the University to silence his cause. The Act was passed and the charter granting JMC the right to confer degrees was granted. The following week, 20 gentlemen received their diplomas in the College’s first Commencement exercises.

With changing fortunes and times the Charter was amended in 1836 to read, "That the Medical Department of Jefferson College be and hereby is, created a separate and independent body corporate, under the name, style, and title of ‘The Jefferson Medical College of Philadelphia,’ with the same powers and restrictions as the University of Pennsylvania...". But by 1839, the man whose forceful personality compelled JMC into existence, seemed to be the one who threatened to destroy it with his internal politicking and public denouncements of the Board of Trustees. In a 7-5 vote, McClellan lost his faculty chair to Dr. Joseph Pancoast. Within four months of his removal, McClellan again created a medical school in Philadelphia, "The Medical Department of Pennsylvania College (at Gettysburg)," and again, temperamental McClellan was forced to resign in 1843. The school became extinct in 1861 due to the Civil War.

Dr. George McClellan, a Napoleonic man of action, died, greatly impoverished, in 1847. His controversial and militant predispositions extended to one of his sons, career soldier, George Brinton McClellan. Appointed General-in-Chief of All the Armies of the Union, he was removed in late 1862 because of delays in aggressively prosecuting the War. In 1864 he challenged his former boss, Abraham Lincoln, for the office of President of the United States, and failed. Although notably accomplished, General McClellan also seemed to share his father’s limit for complete career success.

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