Photo credit: Mark Stehle
Stacey Peeples pauses before opening the door to her office. “I’d like to say it doesn’t always look like this, but it does, every day.” Inside this narrow attic space in Pennsylvania Hospital’s 18th-century Pine Building, tables and file cabinets are piled high with books and papers. The shelves lining the eaves hold box upon box of records from the hospital’s 250-year plus history. “This is overflow that comes in here,” says Peeples, who, as lead archivist, is in charge of bringing order to this potential chaos.
The historical collections that Peeples oversees comprise a rare book collection, all of the artwork around the hospital, an image archive numbering 22,000 and a manuscript collection with records dating back to 1751.
Peeples isn’t one to hide away in dusty archives all day, though. She wants to share these rich resources with scholars and historians, and she wants the public to know that Pennsylvania Hospital is a fascinating historic site that they can visit. To that end, Peeples and a small staff of volunteers offer guided tours of the hospital’s Pine Building. Peeples also runs a program that brings school children to tour the medicinal herb garden. “A lot of what we do is educate people,” says Peeples. “This is one of the best examples of living history because we’re still doing what we were founded to do 250 years ago.”
We caught up with Peeples and asked her to take us on a tour.
Q. Here in the Pine Building visitors can see the famous Rittenhouse clock. Tell me about it.
A. The Rittenhouse clock is considered one of the finest timepieces ever created. The board of managers [in the 1800s] was very impressed by it and when they were excited about something, you knew it. They would talk about retiring to the clock after their meetings. During one of the first restorations a bottle of Madeira was found in the bottom of the clock so it seems after their meetings they would treat themselves.
Q. The second-floor library is also a gem.
A. This is by far the best room in the hospital, some say in the city, some say in the world. I don’t know if I’d go as far as that but it’s definitely one of the best rooms. It became the library in 1807 and right now it has about 11,000 historical volumes [dating back to the 15th century]. Physicians used to come here to use this material. That lasted into the mid 20th century. In this room today we have four digital cameras that run all day and security on each case and each window. Everything is catalogued on [Penn’s online library catalog] Franklin.
Q. This summer one of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival performances took place in the surgical amphitheatre at the top of the Pine Building. How did that go?
A. It was fabulous. Whenever you do things like that you’re hedging your bets, but the people involved were fabulous and the actors were just incredible. All the things I so worried about turned out to be non-issues. The people coming knew Pennsylvania Hospital and knew we had some older parts but they’d never seen them and never knew they could have access. After an hour’s performance sitting in these seats people were a little numb but it was a great experience and a great use of the space. This is one of those places where you don’t need high-tech or splashy presentations. You command your presence just by being in here.
Q. Tell me something about the room’s original use as the nation’s first operating theater.
A. Surgeries would have taken place from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and they tried to always plan them for sunny days as opposed to cloudy or overcast days, because initially they didn’t have any other source of light than candles. They didn’t have anesthesia yet, either, so people would be given options. They would basically get you good and drunk. There was lots and lots of rum being bought by the hospital. They would also offer you opium, laudanum for the ladies particularly, and then a tap on the head with a mallet, which is my personal favorite.
Q. The archives contain thousands of records and objects from the hospital’s history. How do you make sense of it all?
A. When I first started you’d look at all these boxes and there was no clear indication of what’s in them, what they are. It’s difficult to work with that and it’s difficult to attract scholars to come in and work with material if we don’t really know what we have. So that’s my focus. There’s no reason why we can’t be a huge research center. We have great material that hasn’t been seen over and over again by people. It’s a very rich environment. My next big project is getting money for the artifacts to not only be able to re-house them but to know much more about them. Some things have these anonymous tags on with cryptic messages. We have all kinds of little things. This here [picking up a metal instrument with a wire loop on the end] is a tonsil guillotine, which was invented by Philip Syng Physick, the father of American surgery. From what I understand, the design today is not so far different from this, but you’d obviously have scalpels on there to make it sharper.
Guided tours are by appointment. Call (215) 829-7513. Brochures for self-guided tours are available at the Welcome Desk. For more information, go to http://www.uphs.upenn.edu/paharc/collections/.
Originally published October 5, 2006.