The D. Hayes Agnew Memorial Pavilion on Spruce Street, near 34th Street, was considered a cutting-edge medical facility when it opened in 1897.
The structure was named for D. Hayes Agnew, a professor of surgery at Penn from 1878 to 1889. Agnew was known not only for his scholarly work, but also for serving as the subject of a renowned painting by Thomas Eakins. In Agnew’s final year as professor, a group of students honored him by commissioning Eakins to paint “The Agnew Clinic,” depicting the professor overseeing students during a surgical procedure. The painting, considered one of the most important in the history of medicine, is on display in the John Morgan Building and is featured on Penn Medicine’s diploma.
In 1888, the Agnew Society was formed, and remains one of the oldest student-run medical organizations in the nation. The society serves as a link between surgical faculty and medical students, and promotes medical student interest in surgical careers.
A spectacular fire extensively damaged the Agnew Wing in 1937. Flames reportedly shot 20 feet into the air from the building’s rooftop. More than 400 patients were inside the building when the fire broke out, and 78 of them had to be carried or led to safety. A Public Ledger newspaper article from Feb. 24, 1937 reported that as the fire raged, doctors and nurses moved valuable supplies and medicine from supply rooms to other wards in the building. At one point, the glass skylight over the supply room shattered, showering glass on the doctors and nurses.
No one was seriously injured in the fire, but parts of the building were flooded with water from the firefighters’ hoses. An electrical short circuit in the interns’ quarters was believed to be the cause of the blaze. The surviving portions of the Agnew Wing were eventually incorporated into the Crothers Dulles building, which was completed in 1941.
For more information on this and other historical events at Penn, visit the University Archives at www.archives.upenn.edu.
Originally published on February 3, 2011