Early Anatomical Theaters in Europe

Though modest in size and scale, Dr. Davidge’s anatomical room had its roots in European architectural traditions. The design of the monumental building now known as Davidge Hall was based on some of the most important eighteenth-century European architectural precedents and upon an important American example, the Medical Hall at the University of Pennsylvania, built in 1805-06 to drawings prepared by Benjamin Henry Latrobe.

The architectural development of anatomical theaters began during the Renaissance, as anatomical instruction, like other scientific studies, developed. During the fourteenth century, instruction in anatomy had been transferred from the homes of individual instructors to the growing universities. Early views and descriptions suggest how dissections were then carried out. One early view represents Mondino de Liuzzi, professor of anatomy at Bologna and the person credited with introducing human dissection into a formal medical program, sitting in an elevated, throne-like chair and supervising the dissection of a male body lying on a wooden table. Mondino de Liuzzi had conducted public dissections at least as early as 1306 and prepared a highly regarded book on anatomy for his students in 1316. The original edition was not illustrated, but a view published in 1493, about 175 years after his death, shows the dissection taking place in the countryside, not in an architectural setting.10

Another view, also published in 1493, shows a dissection under way but within a masonry space embellished with classical columns, two arched windows, and a tiled floor. However, the fact that the cadaver is lying on a simple trestle table suggests that this was only a temporary arrangement. Early dissections were rare and could be conducted practically only during cold months. Furthermore, public prejudice against dissection precluded the creation of permanent structures.11

Alexander Benedetti, a surgeon and teacher of anatomy at Padua, built a large temporary wooden amphitheater for each of his courses; it was demolished when the course concluded. In 1502 he wrote what is believed to be the first prescriptive description of an anatomical theater:

A temporary theatre should be established in a sizeable and well-ventilated place with seats around it, and of such a size as to hold a number of spectators so that the dissectors may not be disturbed by the crowd. These should be skilled men who have conducted several dissections. Seating must be allotted in order of rank. There must then be one Praefectus to keep an eye on everything and to put people in their places. There must be guards to restrain the eager public as it enters. Two reliable stewards should be chosen to make the necessary payments from the money that is collected.12

Benedetti also wrote an anatomical treatise in which he espoused the public teaching of anatomy and outlined the five steps of dissection that were to be performed over five days. He again described the arrangement of an anatomical theater, but this time modelled it on theaters of classical antiquity:

A temporary theater should be built at a large and well-ventilated place, with seats arranged in a circle, as in the Colosseum in Rome, and the Arena in Verona, sufficiently large to accommodate a great number of spectators in such a manner that the teacher would not be inconvenienced by the crowd. Two ushers must be on hand to expel those who have no business there, and two trustworthy custodians to collect the fees which serve for the buying of necessary instruments. The corpse has to be put on a table in the center of the theater in an elevated and clear place easily accessible to the dissector.13

Whether or not the theater that he described actually existed or whether it was his idealized version is not known. Much of Benedetti’s writing was laced with boasts of his acquaintance with leading citizens of Venice and Verona and with lists of the counts, senators, and philosophers who were invited to attend the daily sessions. Benedetti was especially concerned with adequate lighting, both natural and artificial; he recommended that torches be used and that the table and corpse be arranged to that they were adequately illuminated for both daytime and evening sessions. He clearly suggests that the dissections were performances and thus most appropriately staged in a theater-like setting. His publications carried his description of anatomical theaters to many others concerned with the teaching of anatomy.14

Another important description of an anatomical theater appeared in Vidus Vidius’s treatise on anatomy, which was published posthumously in 1611. Its instructions provide important details on construction, and the book recognized the need for adequate lighting:

The building which is to contain the theatre should be square. In it an octangular amphitheatre can easily be constructed in the following manner. Get eight beams which should be placed at equal distances from each other, with their top touching the wall, their bottom the ground, towards the middle of the stage. Leave a passage, a sort of portico, between the wall and the stage to act as an entrance from the outer door of the room and opposite another passage to a little room where are kept a fire, wood, hot water, vessels and all the necessary apparatus. When the beams have been put up, there should be attached to them four or five or more, platforms looking towards the centre, with a space of six feet between them. They should be supported on wooden props which are nailed to the beams. The lower platforms should be narrower than the higher so that the higher stages hold more spectators than the lower. These should stand as if leaning on a pulpit so that they can see what is going on the stage. Lighting should be either through a hole in the roof or by two candles at the head and two at the feet of the body.15

Since this treatise was published four decades after Vidius’s death in 1569, changes to his original text may have been made. The stated need for an enclosed building, for example, may have been added to reflect the construction of the first anatomical theater in a permanent building, which had been erected at Padua in 1594. Other sections of Vidius’s text explained that while anatomical theaters in smaller towns or universities could be modest in size, those in cities with large student populations needed to be large enough to accommodate most of the people wishing to attend. Otherwise they might turn into a clamoring crowd that would disturb the dissection.16

A mid-sixteenth century anatomical theater is shown in the well known woodcut published in Andreas Vesalius’s De Humani Corpus Fabrica of 1543. It depicts Vesalius standing to the left of the cadaver, conducting the dissection himself. He is surrounded not only by other physicians and his students but also by representatives of the nobility, the church, the city and the university. Vesalius’s theater is a temporary one, much like those described by Benedetti and Vidius, with concentric wooden tiers separated by railings to support and help control the spectators. The body rests on a simple table. While some have interpreted the classical backdrop as the interior of a structure, the vegetation sprouting from the pilaster of the leftmost archway indicates that Vesalius was dissecting in an outdoor setting. The artist may even have created an imaginary structure that was intended to recall the importance of anatomical study in classical antiquity, which is also suggested in the robed figures in the foreground. The skeleton at the center of the woodcut alludes to Vesalius’s conviction that teachers of anatomy must relate dissection to the skeletal structure.17

During the second half of the sixteenth century anatomical theaters were built in Paris, Pavia, Montpellier, Basel, and Bologna, but all are believed to have been temporary structures, erected and dismantled as needed, not housed inside permanent buildings. They were located away from university precincts.18

The first permanent anatomical theater was built at Padua in 1594 within a splendid palace that housed the university. The theater was constructed with the backing of Hieronymus Fabricius of Acquapendente, a Venetian noble and famous surgeon, for whom it was named. It was used for its original purpose for nearly three centuries and still survives. The theater itself is an almost funnel-like space, compressed into a room that measures only 33 feet at its widest point. It has six, steeply banked, narrow tiers with railings; the tiers were concentric and slightly elliptical in plan, reflecting the oval shape of the dissection table at the center. Various accounts state that it accommodated two to three hundred spectators. The body was raised up on the table by a lift from a small chamber located beneath the first tier. Narrow passageways and stairs are tucked into the spaces between the tiers and the exterior walls.19

Perhaps because it had been inserted into an existing palace, the Padua theater had a flat ceiling and originally little or no natural light. The only illumination was provided by two chandeliers, each with just four candles, and by as few as eight other candles held by students; windows were not added until 1848. The tiers provided space only for standing; there were no benches. The spectators were admitted according to rank: the first level was set aside for officials of the city and university, and the representatives of the highly influential national student associations. Medical students were accommodated in the second and third rows. Great anatomists lectured in this theater. William Harvey gained the training here that led him to discoveries about the circulation of blood. The Padua anatomical theater has been called “the ideal of a place of learning, and a mighty impulse for all the medical schools of Europe.”20

What is believed to be the second permanent anatomical theater was built at Leyden, Holland, in 1597, just three years later. Like the Padua theater, it was inserted into an existing structure, but with an important difference: at Leyden the theater was put into part of a church that had several tall, multi-paned windows and a barrel-vaulted ceiling. This theater was constructed at the behest of Peter Paaw, the university’s professor of anatomy, who had studied in Padua and had seen both Vesalius’s temporary theater and the more modern, permanent one at the university. Perhaps because of the availability of the natural illumination, the Leyden theater was quite different: its five or six tiers for spectators were wider and thus afforded somewhat more comfort. The tiers were much less steeply banked. Another important difference at Leyden was the pair of stairways that rose straight up from the center of the theater and provided direct access to each tier.21

The Leyden theater was generously supplied with human skeletons, some carrying festive banners, as well as with skeletons of horses and other animals. Partly because of its collections, the Leyden theater was said to attract visitors even when dissections were not being performed. It survived until 1822, when a library, which had been housed in another section of the church building, took over the theater space.22

Many anatomical halls were constructed in Europe during the seventeenth century. In London the Master of Anatomy proposed in 1636 that a theater be built at the Barber Surgeons’ Hall, and this is believed to be the first structure designed and built specifically as an anatomical theater. The plans, which survive in Worcester College, Oxford, have been attributed to Inigo Jones. The plan of the London theater measured 40 by 30 feet, slightly larger than the Padua theater. In London the tiers were elliptical in plan, and the stairs were not inside the building as at Padua but in two turrets, rectangular in plan, that flanked the entrance. This theater had many notable architectural features: the railings, doors, and furnishings were made of long-lasting cedar; carvings adorned the seats and walls; and skeletons and other specimens were accommodated in niches and on brackets. This theater opened in 1638, survived the Great Fire of 1666, but became useless after the Surgeons formed a separate company in 1745 over the opposition of the Barbers and the Barbers spitefully refused to allow the Surgeons to rent the theater. It was demolished in 1784 but was still considered a masterpiece.23

A fine anatomical theater was built at Bologna and completed in 1649. It was altered in 1733-34, destroyed by bombs in World War II, but reconstructed in the 1950s with American funding. It had many imposing architectural features, including carved walls and ceiling and a chair for the professor that was elevated ten feet above the floor and had a canopy supported by carved male and female figures. Three sides of the theater had niches filled with statues of twelve famous physicians. When public dissections were held here, the room was decorated with cushions and damask and lighted by torches placed at the head and feet of the body. The public dissections, carried out over a fortnight, were attended by city officials and students, as well as by stylishly dressed women; in the evenings there were balls and festivals. Many distinguished men and at least one woman lectured in this hall.24

In about 1644, just a few years after the completion of the Bologna theater, a building called the Domus Anatomica was built in Copenhagen, under the direction of Simon Paulli, an anatomist who had studied in Leyden. The Copenhagen theater was based on the Leyden model. It was built at the south end of the university campus and had a rectangular plan with four tiers of railings and benches. The dissecting table attracted special interest, because it was designed so that the body could be moved in various directions for better viewing. An interior view shows large windows along two sides of the building, not unlike those in the Leyden theater dating from a half-century earlier. At Copenhagen the end wall of the theater was pierced with four smaller, high windows. Some sources suggest that this theater had a dome, although it is not shown in the interior view, and the exterior view shows a gabled roof (or possibly a roof with intersecting gables) covered with tiles. The roof could have concealed a dome, but the roof, or at least the front of it, does not appear to have any skylights. This theater was destroyed in 1728.

Another Scandinavian theater was designed by Olof Rudbeck the Elder, a physician trained at Leyden, and was built in 1662 at Uppsala, Sweden. It was modeled on the theater at Padua, although it was elliptical rather than circular in plan. Rudbeck’s drawing of a cross section indicates that the low drum of the dome was completely filled with glass, and this theater may have been the first to have a dome that admitted light. Additional illumination was provided by a band of windows at the very top of the exterior walls, which projected out slightly from the dome. Rudbeck’s drawing also reveals that the interior was enriched with classical features — Ionic columns that supported the dome, three cornices, and Doric colonnettes in the railings of each tier. This theater has also been preserved.26

Another major advance in the architectural progression of anatomical theaters appeared in the lantern atop the theater of the London College of Physicians, which was opened in 1674. It was built to the designs of Robert Hooke, the English physicist, mathematician, inventor, and colleague of Christopher Wren. The theater was placed inside a domed octagon over the entranceway to the college; from its shape it became known as the pillbox. A contemporary writer noted that “The effect of the lantern is everything that can be desired, affording light and ventilation and excluding rain in a very efficient manner.” The theater was about forty feet wide and had six tiers of seating, which allowed for the appropriate “arrangement of the seats with the separate stairs for Fellows and Members so well designed.” This observer hailed the theater as “one of the best imagined for seeing, hearing and classification of students and Fellows and for the display of anatomical demonstrations upon a table in the middle of the arena, of any building of its size in existence.”27

In London the newly independent organization of surgeons built a modest hall after 1745 with an octagonal theater above a high basement; the walls had niches in which to display the skeletons of criminals. The Surgeons did not prosper, however, and in London instruction in anatomy became the province of private schools, including one established by William Hunter in Great Windmill Street in 1770. His facility contained not only dissecting rooms but also an anatomical theater, his famous museum of specimens, and his own dwelling. Benjamin Franklin was a frequent visitor.28

Meanwhile, in Paris, three rival factions had built permanent anatomical theaters, all dominated by domes. All three survive. In 1694, the Surgeons of St. Côme, under the sponsorship of Louis XIV, built a highly ornate theater that was well lighted not only by a circular lantern with round-headed windows but also by very large windows between the ribs of the dome and elliptical windows encircling the drum of the dome. It was located at the corner of rue de la Harpe and rue de Cordeliers. This building still stands, but the interior has been greatly altered for use as classrooms.29

The Faculty of Medicine responded to the Surgeons’ architectural challenge, but not until 1744, by constructing a domed structure that is located on a corner of the rue des Rats and named for the anatomist who taught there, Jacques-Bénigne Winslow. Built to the designs of Barbier de Blignière, it is about 33 feet in diameter, with good-sized windows rising from the base of the dome and apparently also having a skylight at the top of the dome. The theater is said to have had “concentric rows of seats with a high balcony” supported by eight Doric columns and “a notable vaulted basement.” Originally it could accommodate 180 people. Presumably it has been altered, since at one time it was used as a cabaret.30

Meanwhile, a Royal Academy of Surgery had been organized in 1731 and was dedicated by Louis XV in 1748. At the height of its success and with the patronage of Louis XV and Louis XVI, the academy commissioned architect Jacques Gondoin to construct a magnificent new theater, for the École de Chirurgie, which was built between 1769 and 1774. It is now the central building of the Ancienne Faculté de Médecine, located in the rue de l’École de Médecine. It has a two-story hexastyle portico with Corinthian columns placed in the center of the courtyard facade and aligned with the great iron gates that lead to the street. The theater itself is semicircular in plan with at least 12 rows of simple block-like benches, without railings; access to the upper rows of seats was provided by narrow stairways contained in two apse-like spaces. The most spectacular feature of the theater is the high dome, filled with about eight rows of coffers, all ornamented with rosettes. At the top of the dome is a garland outlining a lunette-shaped opening; the opening is shown in a contemporary engraving as being open to the sky, much like the opening in the Pantheon. The opening cast a strong light onto the dissecting table below. The theater was said to be able to accommodate 1,200 people. Rooms in other parts of the complex included a small theater used to instruct midwives, a chemistry laboratory, a public hall, a library, rooms for experiments and for the display of instruments, and offices.31

A fourth anatomical theater in Paris was designed by Edmé Vernique (1788-89) and by Molinos and Legrand (1793-94). The theater seating was more horseshoe-shaped in plan than Gondoin’s, and it had a pyramidal skylight atop the dome. At the front of the theater was a coffered barrel vault that extended the full width of the room and was supported on columns; underneath the vault was a highly architectural hooded structure, probably containing the chemical hearth and possibly a fireplace. This theater, like the one by Gondoin, was situated at ground level. On the exterior, the front elevation had a central archway framing two columns and an entablature; the other facades had domed apsidial projections. Originally this theater was used for chemical and botanical, as well as anatomical, instruction. Today it is known as the Grand Ampithéâtre; it stands along the north edge of the Jardin des Plantes.32

A monograph on Gondoin’s theater was published in Paris in 1780, and plans, elevations, and sections of it and of the Grand Ampithéâtre were published in J.K. Krafft and N. Ransonnette’s Plans, coupes, élévations des plus belles maisons . . . a Paris c. 1801-03. Through these drawings and through visits, these anatomical theaters were known to architects and others in the United States. Gondoin’s l’École de Médecine was, in fact, considered the most famous late eighteenth century building in Paris after the church of Ste-Genevieve. Very importantly, architect Benjamin Latrobe was familiar with at least one of the theaters. He undoubtedly visited Gondoin’s theater in 1783-84 during his grand tour of Europe and may have seen the Grand Ampithéâtre, if he made another trip to Europe before emigrating to America in 1795. The Medical Hall that Latrobe designed for the University of Pennsylvania in 1805 was based on Parisian precedents and had a great impact upon the form of anatomical theaters in America. These structures were also known to the founders of the University of Maryland School of Medicine. A book published by Dr. John B. Davidge, called the Gondoin structure “a noble edifice” and a “fine building.” The arrangement of the front of the chemical hall at the University of Maryland is very similar to that in the Grand Ampithéâtre.33

Elsewhere in Europe other important eighteenth-century anatomical theaters included one built in Abo, Finland, in 1763, and another in Pavia, opened in 1785, which was designed by Giuseppe Piermarini and called “a real masterpiece of its kind.”34

During the eighteenth century the University of Edinburgh became the most famous medical school in Europe. Many of the Edinburgh professors had been trained in Leyden, including three generations of anatomists named Alexander Monro, who held the chair of anatomy continuously for 126 years, taught 12,800 students (including several of the founders of the College of Medicine of Maryland), and greatly advanced the study of anatomy through their meticulous dissections. One of the founders of the College of Medicine of Maryland, John Shaw, studied anatomy at Edinburgh. In a letter to his father dated December 20, 1801, he rejoiced over his hew eyeglasses (“I had no idea before that it was possible for me to be made to see so well,” he wrote). He was especially grafeful for them since he “very seldom could get a front seat” in the anatomical theater and without the glasses had not been able to “see accurately the subject of demonstration.”35
The Medical Hall at the University of Pennsylvania and Other Early Anatomical Theaters in America

In eighteenth-century America the first anatomical instruction was given in private schools. In about 1730 Thomas Cadwalader established a private school in Philadelphia, and in the 1750s there were private schools in New York City and Newport, Rhode Island. Philadelphia soon rose to become the medical capital of early America, and the buildings erected in Philadelphia for medical instruction influenced others built in the United States in the early nineteenth century, including the building now known as Davidge Hall.36

In 1765 William Shippen and John Morgan, who had studied with Alexander Monro in Edinburgh and with the Hunters in London, founded a medical school in association with Pennsylvania College that later became the medical school of the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Shippen at first taught anatomy in rooms behind his father’s house on Fourth Street, “which had been prepared for this special purpose.” Later, classes were held in Surgeons Hall, the school’s first structure built especially for the use of the medical profession; it may have contained an amphitheater for surgery or anatomical instruction.37

Physicians and medical students in Philadelphia would have also been familiar with the surgical theater located on the upper level of the Center Building of the Pennsylvania Hospital. Construction had begun in 1796. The architectural design had called for a dome over the amphitheater, but that scheme was given up when it was found that it was too “difficult to adopt any Dome to the present Style of the Front.” Since the amphitheater could be lighted very well by just a skylight, the managers of the hospital resolved in July 1798 “that the Dome be omitted and the Sky Light to enlighten the Theatre for surgical operations be finished with a light railing.” The original theater held about 250 students. It was enlarged in 1848 with the addition of fifty seats, so that it could accommodate three hudnred spectators. It is the oldest surviving surgical amphitheater in the United States.38

In 1800 the University of Pennsylvania purchased an imposing three-story brick building on the west side of Ninth Street between Chestnut and Market streets that had been constructed by the state of Pennsylvania in 1792-97 as a residence for the President of the United States, but President John Adams refused the gift, citing a conflict with provisions of the Constitution. The university’s building committee reported that the “west Bow Room in the second story” of the former residence had been fitted up for medical studies; also interesting (in light of the plan of Benjamin Latrobe’s later design for the Medical Hall) is the committee’s statement that “if the Chemistry Professor should desire a room for his chemical apparatus, he can be accommodated in the lower story.” Latrobe evidently advised the university on these alterations.39

Despite these improvements, however, the medical school needed more space; 150 students were enrolled, and the classrooms used for teaching anatomy and chemistry had become too small. The medical faculty petitioned the university trustees in 1804 for better accommodations but were unsuccessful. The faculty subsequently presented another proposal in which they would help finance the project: “the medical professors held themselves responsible for the interest of a sum to be expended on their behalf in the erection of apartments suitable for the medical lectures.”40

The university received a scheme from Stephen Bourne, a Philadelphia builder, for a structure containing new classrooms, and his drawing, dated April 22, 1805, is preserved in the university’s archives. It shows a three-story building, rectangular in plan, about 50 feet wide and 38 feet deep. Part of the basement evidently was to be used for “apparatus” for chemical or anatomical instruction. There was a main stair at the corner entrance to the building, and two circular back stairs that opened at the first story to provide access to the laboratory and on the third story to the dissection room, but not to the second-story lecture hall. Each of three classrooms had flat ceilings that were approximately 13-feet-high. The chemical theater had fifteen slightly curved tiers of seating, and at the front was a hooded structure, apparently with a chimney or vent, that was to accommodate the chemical hearth. The top floor had a good-sized “Preparation Room” and a smaller “Professor’s Closet,” as well as the anatomical theater. Here the benches were arranged in concentric tiers that terminated against the wall separating the amphitheater from the other two rooms. Bourne placed the dissecting table under a domed lantern, whose sides were almost entirely of glass. The structure of the lantern continued straight down into the attic under the hipped roof and then flared out to diffuse the light. The anatomical theater received additional light through two windows in opposite walls near the circular stairways.41

Bourne’s workmanlike plan apparently fell short of the university’s expectations, for Samuel M. Fox, a university trustee, soon invited Benjamin Latrobe to submit a design. Fox had been Latrobe’s client for the splendid Bank of Pennsylvania, built in Philadelphia between 1798 and 1801. Fox wrote to Latrobe on May 9, 1805, about the new medical building for the university, and Latrobe responded two days later with a letter and drawings.42

Latrobe’s design for the Medical Hall is known only through three sources — his correspondence and published writings; a wash drawing of the exterior by another Philadelphia architect, William Strickland; and a drawing of alterations to Medical Hall that Strickland proposed in 1817. Strickland’s 1817 drawing has dotted lines to indicate Latrobe’s original plan. Latrobe’s original drawings for the Medical Hall have been lost, perhaps because he may have sent them to Baltimore in 1812 to assist a fellow architect, Maximilian Godefroy, in designing the building now known as Davidge Hall.43

On May 25, 1805, Latrobe sent the drawings illustrating his plan for the Medical Hall to Fox, and from Latrobe’s accompanying letter and from his earlier writings, it is clear that Latrobe had seen and admired at least one of the great Parisian anatomical halls. In his letter to Fox, Latrobe wrote that it was “evident that in the general arrangement of the chemical lecture room, I have had the famous anatomical hall at Paris in my recollection.” “Your own memory of this work,” Latrobe continued, “will enable you to understand and explain its construction.” Two years earlier, in 1803, Latrobe had responded to a request from a friend in Philadelphia for recommendations on the “best form of a room for hearing and speaking” for a Quaker meetinghouse. Latrobe wrote that “One of the most beautiful rooms, and perhaps the best lecture room in the world for speaking, hearing, and seeing, is the Anatomical Theatre in the Rue Faideau at Paris. Its plan is a half circle, and it is covered by a half dome.”44

While these statements make it clear that Latrobe was recalling French antecedents, it is less clear exactly which building or buildings were his models. Both l’École de Médecine and the Grand Ampithéâtre had plans that were half circles (although the Grand-Ampithéâtre was more horseshoe-shaped), and both had half domes. His reference to the anatomical theater being “in the Rue Faideau” poses several questions. There is a rue Feydeau in Paris, but no anatomical theater is known to have been located there; however, in 1788 the Theatre Feydeau had been built on or near the rue Feydeau to the designs of Molinos and Legrand. It is possible that Latrobe was thinking of Molinos and Legrand’s Grand Ampithéâtre rather than the Theatre Feydeau. Furthermore, Latrobe’s knowledge could well have been amplified by the plans, sections, and elevations of each building that had been published by Kraft and Ransonnette, for Latrobe had Thomas Jefferson’s copy of this book in his possession at the time that he was working on the Medical Hall for the University of Pennsylvania.45

Latrobe enclosed his architectural drawings of the Medical Hall with the letter to Fox. Latrobe proposed a two-story structure rather than the three stories that Bourne had designed, but like Bourne, Latrobe placed the chemical hall on the lower story and the anatomical hall above it. Latrobe’s scheme was much more elegant than Bourne’s: Latrobe set his theaters within an octagonal plan and placed semicircular windows around the perimeter. The dome, which had a skylight, was exposed. Latrobe explained that he had not created a third lecture room because “it can be had in the present house, and economy is no doubt as material, as any other consideration.” Furthermore, if he had stacked a third room atop the other two, then the height of the wing would have exceeded that of the main building; or if he had kept the structure to two stories with two lecture halls at the same level, then “the extent of the plan in one of the two stories” would have been “more than was wanted in the other.” Latrobe’s building was about 45 feet in diameter.46

Latrobe also explained to Fox that “the great difference” between the Paris model and his scheme for the chemical hall “arises from the different method of lighting them.” “The room at Paris,” he wrote, “has a skylight. Mine could not be thus lighted on account of the upperstory and I have therefore used semicircular windows in the exterior walls” (the “upperstory” was, of course, the anatomical hall).47

A few years later, in December 1811, Latrobe prepared an article on acoustics for the Edinburgh Encyclopaedia in which he explained how he had applied the principles of acoustics to the construction of the chemical hall in Philadelphia. Latrobe was concerned about echoes and advised that rooms be “so constructed that no secondary and subsequent echoes could reach the audience.” He continued:
The place of the orator is next to be considered. – He ought to be so situated that his hearers shall not be behind him, and also, that he shall be at the shortest mean distance from them. Both these rules, which are all that govern the case, suggest at once the ancient semicircular theatre as the most perfect form of a church or lecture-room, the orator or exhibiter being placed in the centre, or moving along the diameter.

It has now become a pretty general practice to construct lecture-rooms in this form, especially when the nature of the subject explained in them requires room, and the objects exhibited are numerous. In the chemical lecture-room of the University of Pennsylvania, though on a very limited scale, I have endeavoured to adapt the form and arrangement to the principles which I have laid down; and the object in view has been perfectly attained.48

The semicircular arrangement of seats was well suited for the chemical hall, where the chemical hearth was placed at the front wall of the room, and the requisite chimney could rise against an exterior wall; the Grand Ampithéâtre had a hearth in this location. Placement of the hearth in the center of the room would have created an impossible situation, obstructing the views of at least half of the students and forcing the chimney to protrude through the center of the anatomical hall directly above.

Latrobe also explained to Fox that he had drawn two plans of the lower story, which contained the chemical hall. One showed “the Lobby of the room which lies under the back seats, and the opening of the chemical hearth, with entrance from the opposite side, and the stair case.” “The second,” Latrobe wrote, “exhibits the other halfstory, showing all the seats, and also the manner in which the flues are carried back upon an arch thrown over the Vestibule.” The published drawings of l’École de Médecine and of the Grand Ampithéâtre in Paris included a similar presentation with separate plans of the lower and upper levels.49

Strickland’s longitudinal section of Latrobe’s Medical Hall, drawn in 1817, shows a vaulted chemical hearth placed near ground level and labeled as “Dr. Cox’s Chemical Laboratory;” this vault may have been Latrobe’s modest interpretation of Molinos and Legrand’s scheme. Latrobe’s chemical hall may have had a lower ceiling than the room shown in Strickland’s section, where Strickland noted that “Dr. Cox’s room must be depressed about 2 feet,” in order to gain more height for the third story that Strickland was proposing. Strickland also referred to “taking down the Arched ceiling” to gain more height for the third story; he may have been alluding to the domed ceiling of the existing anatomical hall on the second floor, although he may have been referring to a shallow dome in the chemical hall.50

Unlike the chemical hall, Latrobe’s anatomical hall had tiers of seats arranged in concentric circles. In his 1811 article for the Edinburgh Encyclopaedia, Latrobe explained why he had chosen this arrangement for Medical Hall:

The anatomical theatre in the same building is a circular room covered with a dome. In an anatomical theatre the perfect view of the subject is of as much importance as the perfect hearing of the lecture. The circular form of such a room brings the subject placed in the centre as near as possible to the eyes of the greatest number of students; and it is therefore preferable to the semicircular plan.51

Strickland’s 1817 plan of Medical Hall shows a v-shaped entrance well cutting through the tiers of seats, perhaps in a fashion similar to Latrobe’s design.

Latrobe’s anatomical hall was covered by a dome. Latrobe told Fox that “I have contrived the necessary support of the dome so that Recesses are formed which will accomodate a large number of spectators, and furnish niches for Skeletons and anatomical Statues, of which very admirable ones as large as life have been modelled in france in the attitude of Tortebas’s [sic] engravings” (Tortebat had prepared anatomical plates for a book published in Paris in 1733 and intended for the use of painters and sculptors). Unfortunately, Strickland’s drawing is not very clear about the original locations of these recesses or niches; some may have been located in the triangular spaces created by the intersection of the octagonal walls of the hall and the “hyphen” that connected the new hall with the existing university building.52

Latrobe’s letter also addressed structural matters. He firmly stated that “There is nothing about both rooms in which a saving can be made, as all the forms that appear ornamental arise necessarily from the bracing and support of the floors, which are to carry very heavy weights.” He had calculated that “Two hundred Students at 160 lb per Student, weigh fifteen Tons, and the floor ought therefore to be well contrived, as it lies 30 feet in clear open.” He recommended heating such a large room “by Steampipes of tin;” this method be considered “superior to fire places in the floor, which, by the bye, are impracticable in timber floors.” As an alternative he mentioned a stove like the one used on Fox’s Bank of Pennsylvania. Latrobe blithely dismissed any problems with how his scheme would relate to the floor levels of the existing building: “I know not how my stories will agree with those of the present house,” he wrote. “There can be however no great difficulty in this respect,” he explained, adding that if the plan were approved, it would be “necessary for me to come to town for a day or two,” when presumably he would make any necessary adjustments.53

It is not known whether Latrobe’s initial scheme was approved or whether he made modifications. In any case, it was his design that was adopted for Medical Hall, and construction was underway during the spring of 1806. On June 2, 1806, Latrobe wrote to his brother in London that “In Philadelphia a Wing of my design is now erecting at the University for the use of the medical schools. The exterior is very plain, but in the interior there will be a chemical and anatomical Hall of considerable dimensions, and, I hope, not of unpleasant design and proportions.”54

The building was opened to students in December 1806. Latrobe wrote his brother on December 20 that “a few days ago I opened the new Wing to the University with great applause, more praise indeed than cash.” Latrobe also told his brother “that to night I have seen 10 to 12 Students therein at work upon 9 human bodies;” one wonders where in the building these dissections were taking place and how what lighting was provided. Latrobe had evidently struck a bad deal with the trustees regarding his commission: he had written in July that “With the Trustees of the University my bargain was disgraceful – 250$ in lieu of 800$;” the latter amount would have equaled a 5 percent commission on the university’s $16,000 appropriation for the wing.55

In other correspondence Latrobe explained that Medical Hall was built of brick and that some expenses, including iron doors, did not “strictly” belong to his design. He also described an important practical feature: “In the medical Schools, built by me in Philadelphia, a pit is connected with the dissecting rooms, which most perfectly answers the purpose of keeping the house free from disagreeable smells and of getting rid very conveniently and [illegible] of all noxious matters.”56

The skylight over the anatomical hall soon posed serious problems. In April 1807 Thomas Jefferson, who was then serving his second term as President, wrote to Latrobe about the construction of the Capitol. In his reply, Latrobe referred to the “pannel lights.” “What shall I do,” Latrobe wrote, perhaps rhetorically, “when the condensed vapor of the hall in the Capitol showers down upon the heads of the members from 100 skylights, as it now does from the skylight of our new Anatomical Hall?” Condensation was a problem, Latrobe continued, “in the skylights of the House of Representatives and in the lanterns atop the Bank of Pennsylvania and of the main building of the university.” He told Jefferson that this dripping was “an event which I believe to be as certain as that cold Air and cold Glass will condense warm vapor.”57

As the medical school at the University of Pennsylvania grew, even more space was needed. Strickland’s wash drawing indicates that a small wing was added. Then Strickland’s alterations were carried out in 1817, extending the length of the building and changing Latrobe’s circular amphitheater into an elliptical one. Strickland’s changes, in turn, survived for little more than a decade, for in 1828 it was determined that the building was “incapable of being so altered as to afford accommodation suitable to the flourishing condition of the school.” It was demolished in 1829, and two new structures, once again planned and built under the supervision of the medical faculty, were erected.58

Latrobe’s original two-story building, with the domed anatomical theater stacked atop the chemical hall, had remained intact for only eleven years. During those years, however, it served hundreds of students, including several men who were involved in the founding of the College of Medicine of Maryland, and its design undoubtedly influenced the construction of Maryland’s first medical building.

Meanwhile, three other medical schools had been established in American cities. The second college to have a school of medicine was associated with King’s College (later Columbia University) in New York, which was founded by six physicians in 1767. It was chartered as the College of Physicians and Surgeons by the Regents of the state of New York on March 12, 1807, several months before the College of Medicine of Maryland received it state charter. Columbia’s first medical building, since demolished, was a house on what in now Park Place; in 1809 the school moved to another dwelling which was “fitted up for the reception of the College.” In 1813 the college purchased an existing, small, three-story brick warehouse on Barclay Street and altered so that it had two lecture rooms and a cupola. This building was enlarged in 1817 so that it extended 50 feet along Barclay Street and was doubled in size: it had a chemical hall on the first floor, a general lecture room on the second floor; and anatomical theater on the third floor. This enlarged structure served the college for the next two decades. Columbia’s early medical buildings were left behind as the university moved to new campuses further uptown.59

Harvard’s medical school, which began in 1782 with the teaching of anatomy, held classes first in the basement of Harvard Hall and then in Holden Hall in Cambridge and in Boston in a building at 400 Washington Street, since demolished. It was not until 1816 that the Harvard medical school, which was known as the Massachusetts Medical College, moved into a building constructed especially for it. It was located on Mason Street in Boston, and built of brick to the designs of Jacob Guild; it measured 83 feet by 43 feet in plan; with a three-sided projection on the rear. Its facilities were arranged much like those at the University of Pennsylvania and at the University of Maryland, with a large chemical lecture room and a library on the first floor and the anatomical theater on the second floor; in Boston there was an additional lecture room on the first floor. A 1817 account described the Boston anatomical hall as “The most extensive room, occupying the whole central part of the building, covered with a dome and skylight; with semicircular seats which are entered from above and descend regularly toward the centre.” The college was centrally heated by a large stove, which had been invented by Jacob Perkins and was located in the basement and burned Rhode Island coal. It continued to serve the school until the 1860s, when the lowered story was remodeled into a firehouse. It no longer stands.60

Dartmouth’s first medical classes were given by a single lecturer, Nathan Smith, who successfully petitioned the New Hampshire Legislature for funds for a building, but only after he agreed to donate the building site, his medical museum, and his chemical apparatus. Ground was broken in 1811, a year before construction was begun at Davidge Hall. The Dartmouth building was also a good sized brick structure, 72 feet by 35 feet in plan, built by Lemuel Davenport. When the construction costs exceeded the budget, Smith made personal donations. The “New Medical House,” as it was known, was demolished in 1963.61

Each of the purpose-built anatomical theaters for the four oldest medical schools in the United States has been demolished. Davidge Hall thus contains the oldest remaining anatomical hall in the country.

Establishment of the College of Medicine of Maryland

The medical faculty of Baltimore had met at Dr. John Davidge’s immediately after the November 1807 raid on his modest anatomical theater. On December 3, 1807, the faculty published a notice in the Baltimore American and Commercial Advertiser announcing that “the very generous and handsome present of a lot of ground in the precincts, from a gentleman whose philanthropy and amiableness are only equalled by his love of science.” This notice did not identify the donor by name or the location of the lot, although later accounts identified the donor as Col. John E. Howard, a leading Baltimorean. The faculty resolved that “in consequence of the late interruption of the lectures on anatomy and surgery” and as a result of the offer of a building site, they would now appoint “a number of physicians to wait on the inhabitants of the city to procure such a sum of money as may be necessary for the erection of buildings suitable for the accommodation of professors in the different branches of medicine.”62

In the announcement, the physicians stated that the “many circumstances concur to invite” the establishment of a medical facility. Baltimore was “rising by its commerce to a rank among the first cities of the union.” They considered Baltimore to be “the only eligible and in every respect a suitable spot south of Philadelphia in which a medical college can be established.” They perceived Baltimore as “flourishing in riches, opening a field to manufacturers; and is, we hope, assuring to itself by its generous and enlightened views reputation of being a nursery for the arts — the sciences — the liberal professions.” The faculty called upon the pride of Baltimoreans to move forward with the school: the announcement noted that a bill to establish a medical school was then before the General Assembly but called on city residents not to wait to receive the example from the state. Instead, “in an establishment from which such immediate advantages will result to our municipal community,” the doctors proposed that local citizens take the initiative and “suggest the example” rather than follow it.63

The General Assembly passed the bill for “Founding a medical college in the City or Precincts of Baltimore for the Instruction of Students in the Different Branches of Medicine” just a few days later, on December 18, 1807. The school was to be called The College of Medicine of Maryland and was to be administered “for the time being” by the board of the Medical and Churigical Society and by the president and professors of the college, who were to be known collectively as the regents of the college. An organizational meeting of the regents was held on December 28, 1807. Dr. John Davidge and Dr. James Cocke were appointed to a joint professorship of anatomy, surgery, and physiology, and John Shaw (who had been credited erroneously with a medical degree during the reading of the bill in Assembly) became professor of chemistry. Davidge was subsequently elected dean of the faculty.64

The act establishing the college provided no funds for instruction or for facilities. On January 20, 1808, the General Assembly authorized a lottery for the benefit of the college. Lotteries were a well established method for raising money for public, as well as private, enterprises. Evidently there was no immediate progress on setting up the lottery to benefit the medical college, for it was not until a year later, on December 28, 1808, that the regents announced in a Baltimore newspaper that “in a few days” they would be able “to lay before the public” a plan of a lottery for the college of medicine and to place the tickets on sale; they would then “rest with confidence in the enlightened generosity of the public.” This low-profile approach was not apparently what was needed, for construction of a permanent facility was not begun for more than three more years.65

Nathaniel Potter, who had been elected to the facility at the December 1807 organizational meeting, recalled this early period of the school’s history in a booklet published in 1838. The professors, he wrote, were “destitute of everything, but an enthusiastic spirit.” Since they were “without a place to accommodate a class however small,” he recalled, “we determined to lecture in our own dwellings. We began with seven pupils, and unperfect as our courses must necessarily have been, they were favorably received.” The following year found the faculty “equally destitute of all public accommodations;” their only available anatomical preparations were those of their own making. At least some of the classes were moved into an abandoned schoolhouse at the southwest corner of Lafayette Street and McClellan’s Alley. However, its dilapidated state made teaching difficult, and Professor Shaw’s death from pleurisy in 1809 was blamed on the building’s lack of heat. During the winter the professor of anatomy, according to Potter, found “his subjects frozen or covered with snow or ice,” while the chemistry professor “often found his materials for experiment destroyed, or rendered unfit for illustration.” When the schoolhouse could not accommodate other professors, they found space in a ballroom in Mallet’s hotel on Commerce Street.66

Potter relates that the facility petitioned the General Assembly during the 1811-1812 session “for the grant of a lottery to raise funds to erect a suitable building.” In December 1811 the General Assembly authorized another lottery. The lottery advertisements provided details about the distribution of the prizes: the two top prizes were to be $50,000 each, and the plan was to sell 35,000 tickets at $10 each. The advertisements appealed to the many benefits that would accrue to the city: the establishment of the school would “unquestionably have a beneficial influence in the general literary character of the city” and “induce young men of talents to establish themselves in our city, and thereby permanently secure to this community the best aid that can be afforded by the medical profession.” If the school prospered, then the promoters predicted, it would “cause large sums to be expended annually in this city, which would otherwise be disbursed in other places.” Finally, the promoters claimed, “To those who are inclined to profit themselves at the same time that they encourage us — we confidently say, that no scheme of a lottery so splendid or promising as the above, has ever been offered in this country.”67

Potter wrote that although the General Assembly had been liberal in fulfilling the faculty’s request, the “tedious process of the lottery system at that time” made the proceeds “necessarily unavailing.” As a result, he recalled, “we resolved to commence operations on our own credit and responsibility, provided the means could be obtained.” This statement seems to have been the basis on which the acquisition of the building site and the construction of the college’s first building was accomplished: the faculty along with some civic-minded Baltimoreans bankrolled the school, an arrangement not unlike those at the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard medical schools. At Maryland the state was still trying to resolve the claims of the professors to the land and the buildings as late as 1832.68

Potter maintained that it was not until about 1811 that the present site of the medical school — the elevated corner of Greene and Lombard Streets, then the western edge of the city — “attracted our attention as a commanding, eligible site.” His statement appears to be at odds with the notice published by the medical faculty in December 1807. Potter related that representatives of the school called upon Col. Howard, evidently in 1811, shortly after he had refused an offer of $10,000 for the site. They successfully appealed to Howard “in behalf of science” and on “the advantages that might result from the establishment of a Medical School, both to the state and the city.” Howard agreed to sell it to the faculty “on our own individual credit, for nine thousand dollars, at our own time.” “This philanthropic act,” Potter concluded, “made him the first patron of the College.”69