America’s First Hospital

With the Affordable Care Act kicking into higher gear at the beginning of 2014, this seems like a good time to ponder the beginning of healthcare in the United States, which happened before we were the United States..

My favorite Founding Father, unquestionably, is Benjamin Franklin. I love his pithy quotations.

“If you would be loved, love and be loveable.”

“To lengthen the life, lessen the meals.”

“A man wrapped up in himself makes a very small bundle.”

Franklin was an inventor unafraid to experiment. Remember the kite tied to a key in a lightning storm? He could have killed himself. That’s how much he wanted to know what would happen. If you wear bifocal glasses, you can thank Ben Franklin. When he was 78 years old and struggling with his own vision, he took two pairs of spectacles, split them in half, and made one pair with two strengths of lens. He also invented a catheter to help his brother with bladder stones, and he experimented with a variety of medical uses of electricity. Ben Franklin freely expressed his opinions about healthcare.

“God heals and the doctor takes the fees.”

“Nothing is more fatal to health than over care of it.”

“He’s the best physician that knows the worthlessness of the most medicine.”

He said this, of course, at a time when unproven and harmful treatments were in common practice, but his words remind us of the power of the body to heal itself.

What I most admire Franklin for is his role in creating Pennsylvania Hospital. Between 1730 and 1776, shipping and trade with Europe brought droves of people to Philadelphia, many of them poor. In the middle of this period of rapid growth, Dr. Thomas Bond, a Quaker, wanted to care for the poor. He appealed to Franklin for help through the Pennsylvania Assembly. Franklin proposed that the assembly provide 2,000 British pounds if he was able to raise another 2,000 British pounds from private donations. The politicians doubted he could do it, but Franklin raised this amount and more.

As a result, America’s first hospital opened in 1751 with the purpose “to care for the sick, poor and insane who were wandering the streets of Philadelphia.” The seal of the hospital featured a picture of the Good Samaritan and the words “Take care of him and I will repay thee.” The first hospital in America—we weren’t even a nation yet—set the precedent for caring for the poor using financial help from both the public and private sectors, and it was built on the foundation of a story Jesus told to help us see who our neighbors are.

Near the time of his death in 1790, at age 84, Franklin regarded the hospital as one of his most important achievements. Perhaps Franklin’s most famous quotation is, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” I resonate with that advice because it is at the heart of all we do at the Church Health Center. We honor Franklin not only for his role in founding our country, but also for his role in setting a standard for how we care for each other.


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