Founded in 1902, The Franklin Inn Club began at 1218 Chancellor St., when nine leaders of Philadelphia’s cultural life met at the University Club to plan for the pleasures of dining and conversation in a permanent city setting. The Franklin Inn Club is one of the many quaint institutions that have characterized Philadelphia’s cultural history. Caldwell’s original inspiration was the noted Tavern Club of Boston. In a spirit of inclusiveness, the Club membership voted in the early 1980’s to include women, also active in the arts, sciences, learned professions and other intellectually stimulating fields. And so, The Franklin Inn Club was the first such club in Philadelphia to be co-ed. It remains among the smallest of Philadelphia’s town clubs.The 1907 design by the club’s architect, Francis G. Caldwell, reproduced the appearance and ambiance of an inn in Ben Franklin’s time. The Inn moved to its present location in 1907, when it bought and combined four small row houses dating from the early 19th century. Camac Street, running parallel to 12th and 13th Street, south of Walnut Street, has been called “The Avenue of the Artists,” because of the many arts and dramatic clubs which lined it for several blocks southward from Walnut Street. A few still remain. Camac St. is a charming narrow cart way still paved with wooden blocks, once used throughout Philadelphia, to reduce the noise from horses’ hooves.The Franklin Inn Club (FIC) is one of many quaint institutions that have characterized Philadelphia since its earliest days. Now, in its second century, the FIC began as a watering hole for writers of all sorts: novelists, poets, academic scholars, journalists, contributors to trade and professional publications, etc. Gradually, being an author was removed from the requirements for membership, although a large number of current members are writers. Today, members share broad interests in many fields: the arts, education, social and political affairs, history, science, economics, medicine, law, and culture broadly defined as well as a love for reading across these areas of human endeavor. Early members wrote and produced plays, masques, musicals and other theater productions. Recently, this theatrical tradition was revived in connection with the Philadelphia Fringe Festival. The Franklin Inn has reciprocity with a list of notable clubs across the USA, Europe and Australia.
The Franklin Inn Club
by Seymour I. Toll
Nine leaders of Philadelphia’s cultural life met at the University Club on February 9, 1902 to form the Franklin Inn Club. They sought the collegiality of a literary coterie, and the pleasures of dining and conversation in a permanent setting in the city. J. Bertram Lippincott presided and Francis Churchill Williams acted as secretary. The other founders were Cyrus Townsend Brady, John Luther Long, William Jasper Nicolls, S. Decatur Smith, Jr., Frederick W. Unger, Francis Howard Williams and Harrison S. Morris.
Ten days later they met to spell out the purposes and rules: “That the object of this author’s club is to promote the literary activities of Philadelphia by establishing and conducting a place of meeting where the members may become better known to each other, and which will furnish the ordinary facilities of a club-house.” They limited membership to those who had written a book (other than medical or legal text), or contributed to literary magazines or periodicals, or were publishers of such journals. The founders decided to invite twenty-five men to join. When each had contributed $25, the club would become a permanent organization.
They elected, as its first president, Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, a prominent neurologist, pioneer in psychiatry, and novelist of colonial Philadelphia. A t a meeting at the Art Club on March 4, 1902, Dr. Mitchell and his colleagues reported that they had gathered forty-three signatures on the original resolutions. The still nameless club had taken an option to purchase 1218 Chancellor Street in the heart of Philadelphia.
At the third meeting, members considered naming their new organization. The Franklin Inn Club won the poll with fourteen votes. Franklin Head and The Authors’ Club each received three votes. The members then adopted a constitution and bylaws.
Measured by the pace at which real estate transactions are consummated today, the new club acted with astonishing speed. (It has never again done anything so quickly or efficiently.) The date of the first recorded meeting at 1218 Chancellor Street was June 4, 1902. By then the property had been acquired for $6,000 and the club had authorized $2,000 for suitable alterations. At a second meeting later that month members adopted a revised constitution and bylaws in accordance with requirements of the charter the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas granted on May 12, 1902.
The charter restated the purpose of the Franklin Inn Club: “To promote social intercourse and friendship among authors, illustrators, editors and publishers, and to that end to maintain a clubhouse for the use of its members.” The literary credentials defined the club’s exclusively male membership well into the century. Following World War II, qualifications for admission were broadened to include those “contributing notably to the literary, artistic or intellectual life of the community.” The club admitted women to membership in 1980, and by the 1980s, in addition to its literary core, academics and doctors and lawyers who also wrote for a general readership, the membership included judges, bankers, physicians, museum and library directors, botanists, bibliophiles, newspaper editors and colum¬nists, broadcasting executives, academic scientists, and a theater administrator.
The club’s first publication listed S. Weir Mitchell as president, Joseph H. Coates as vice-president, Francis Churchill Williams as secretary, and William Jasper Nicolls as treasurer. The directors were Mitchell, Horace Howard Furness, Craige Lippincott, Joseph G. Rosengarten, S. Decatur Smith, Jr., Cyrus T. Brady, and John Luther Long. On the membership committee were other leaders of cultural Philadelphia: Harrison S. Morris, J. Bertram Lippincott, Edward W. Bok , and Owen Wister.
Serving luncheon every day but Sunday, the Chancellor Street clubhouse quickly became an embarrassment of early success. It was so popular that members soon began grumbling about tight quarters, but the problem of limited funds scotched efforts to move to a larger clubhouse.
Nevertheless, pressure to move persisted. At a special meeting on March 1, 1907, upon motion of noted surgeon and medical author, Dr. J. William White, a committee was charged with finding more comfortable quarters. Within two months, at another special meeting, members unanimously agreed to sell the Chancellor Street property and purchase seven houses, 205-207-209 South Camac Street and 1205- 1207-1209-1211 St. James Street, for $25,000. They authorized an expenditure of $4,000 for alterations necessary to create what has since been called the “Inn,” the members’ affectionate name for their clubhouse at st. James and Camac streets. They subscribed $11,300 and sold the Chancellor Street house for $8,500. On June 6, 1907, the newly rehabilitated property was transferred to the Franklin Inn Club. As the prominent American literary historian and club president (1960-63), Robert Spiller, wrote more than a half-century later, “In recent years, it has taken [the club] longer to buy a refrigerator. ”
The club celebrated the opening of its new quarters on November 8, 1907, with a housewarming attended by fifty members and presided over by Dr. Mitchell. The North American reported in a news story the following morning, “There were no guests but the membership is such that the gathering was a distinguished one without recourse to outsiders.” The insiders the reporter had in mind were Philadelphia Brahmins such as Mitchell, Shakespearean commentator Horace Howard Furness, University of Pennsylvania professor John Bach McMaster, and Penn provost Charles Custis Harrison. Younger author-members included John Luther Long, Churchill Williams, and Francis Howard Williams.
The physical design of the Inn reflected the very idea of the club itself. Designer Francis G. Caldwell tried to reproduce the imagined appearance and ambiance of an inn in the days of Benjamin Franklin. Caldwell’s original model was the noted Tavern Club of Boston. The club’s secretary, author-historian Ellis Paxson Oberholtzer, commented: “We like the present situation because the narrow side street is suggestive of the old tavern to which we have tried to make our new clubhouse conform. We look forward with great pleasure to the wider artistic possibilities presented by the audience hall of our new house.” By the 1980s what had been a charming, early twentieth-century center city mews had become Hogarthian, although the area is now physically on the upgrade.
In addition to requiring a setting conducive to pleasant talk over food and drink, the club needed an upstairs “audience room” which would provide satisfactory facilities for the plays, masques, musicals, and other theatrical productions members regularly mounted.
In minute detail, furnishings in the new quarters copied those of a colonial tavern. Much of the original appearance of the place has been preserved, and the arts-and-Letters patina upon it of the past eighty-five years would surely gratify those whose nostalgia for colonial Philadelphia inspired it all.
The first floor with its entrance, dining hall, and kitchen, had white woodwork, low ceilings traversed by heavy rafters supported by sturdy pillars, and a brick fireplace capped by a high mantle. Portraits and old prints hung on the walls. Its wainscoting and diamond-paned windows would have been familiar to Franklin. The dining room cupboards held rows of library colonial glass and quaint old blue willow ware which was eventually displaced by the club’s steadily growing library. Many of the books were written by members, all of whom donate copies of their works to the club’s library as an obligation of membership.
The pictures and sculpture, most of which came from studios of artist members, enrich the culture of the place. Today, the walls are hung with photographic portraits of former club presidents, and artwork done by club members: caricatures of members drawn by Public Ledger cartoonist Wyncie King and architect Alfred Bendiner, bronze bas reliefs of members by Sculptor R. Tait McKenzie, watercolors and oils by artists Ben Wolf and Benton Spruance. At the end of the dining room alcove are French doors giving onto a tiny garden. On a pedestal in the garden sits the bronze bust of Franklin by Joseph J. Greenberg, Jr. Franklin looks benignly upon all who dine within at the common “long table. ”
Dark rafters still span the second floor audience hall, although the original somber brown curtains covering the windows are gone. Until theatrical productions ceased after World War II, a stage dominated the north end of the hall. It faced a fireplace on the south wall above which hung a large oil portrait of Franklin. The stage is gone but books and pictures continue to accrete in bookcases and along the walls. A grand piano serves the club’s occasional musical needs.
The physical character of the Inn still precisely reflects the club’s nature, literary with strong interests in the wider culture of present and past. The place is as shabby genteel as elbow patches on a professor’s old tweed jacket. At every turn there is abiding evidence of the affection members have for unpretentiously preserving the look and feel of a cultured past, whether real or imagined.
The heart of the club has always been its “long table” at which three-course lunches are served every weekday. The number of diners at any given meal is unpredictable, but they will always find Mr. William Green, the club’s long beloved waiter and friend, serving them at the bleached oak board set with carafes of red and white wine. There is certain to be pleasant, sometimes delightful, conversation whether it be with only one other companion or a dozen kindred souls.
Since its opening, the Inn has been not only a regular gathering place for members but a welcoming way station for guests and distinguished visitors passing through town. At the end of January 1921, for example, the English essayist, playwright and novelist G. K. Chesterton was in the city to lecture. His host, the novelist and illustrator George Gibbs brought him to lunch. Out-of-town luminaries occasionally show up as luncheon guests throughout each year.
Although the club’s dramatic productions have disappeared, three other long traditions survive and prosper: end-of-the-month Friday evening dinners, Christmas luncheons, and J. William White dinners.
The Friday evening cocktail-dinner meetings (except in summer months) include members and their guests who repair to the second floor following the meal. A gathering can number anywhere from thirty to eighty. Since this is a club which suffers its inefficiencies with amusement, diners find themselves untroubled by occasionally having to haul their dining chairs upstairs to provide adequate seating for the after-dinner lecture. A member—always a member—then delivers what the audience silently hopes will be a witty discourse on an engaging subject. Hope is sometimes triumphant. For random examples, in recent years topics discussed (or sung) at Friday evening meetings have included ancient Chinese medicine, music set to ballads of Robert Burns, the adventures of Lorenzo da Ponte in America, medical ethics, bibliophilic passion, and a speaker’s poetry struck off for private occasions.
Annual Christmas luncheons are held only for members, who are eased to table with generous servings from the bowl of Fish House Punch Mr. Green prepares for the occasion. Following the meal, the devoted staff receives checks in appreciation for their year-long services. The holiday season is expected to inspire the subject of the talk following luncheon, although the speaker is free to chat about anything and occasionally does.
The annual January business meeting is held on or within a week of Franklin’s birthday, January 17, and concludes with the J. William White dinner. It takes its name from the prominent member-surgeon (incidentally, the last man in Pennsylvania to be challenged to a duel) whose endowment of $4,000 many years ago was intended to cover the cost of dinner and champagne for members then and future. When Dr. White made his gift early in the century, the value and earning capacity of the dollar was such that members at these dinners did indeed dine and drink gratis (in 1902 the regular dinner was. 25¢; ninety years later it is $24). As the century nears its end, however, all that remains of the donor’s endowment is the memory of his illustrious name and generous disposition. Although the fund has long been exhausted, the Franklinian gusto, wit, and good will that pervade the dinner survive undiminished as does the trio of enthusiastic toasts given at each of these fetes: to the doctors three, Franklin, Mitchell, and White.
The Inn’s presidents have been S. Weir Mitchell (1902-14), John Bach McMaster (1914-30), George Gibb (1930-39), Edward W. Mumford (1939-40), Samuel Scoville, Jr. (1940-46), John D. Kern (1946-47), Hugh Wagnon (1947-48), Graeme Lorimer (1948-52), David M. Robb (1952-54), Joseph A. Livingston (1954-57), Melvin K. Whiteleather (1957-60), Robert E. Spiller (1960-63), Clarence Morris (1963-66), Whitfield J. Bell, Jr. (1966-69), Edwin Wolf 2nd (1969-72), Edward S. Gifford, Jr. (1972-75), B. Dale Davis (1975-78), Keith Doms (1978-81), Seymour I. Toll (1981-84), Ben Wolf (1984-87), George R. Allen (1987-89), Margaret C. Barringer (1990-91), and Jack B. Justice (1991- ). *
In recent years the club has published a monthly newsletter edited by its secretary Milton Rothman. The club has revived the pleasant custom of an annual late spring “outing” at a member’s residence. Once or twice a month luncheons feature a speaker who may talk informally about anything from Nubian art to mayoral politics.
From an original membership of 53 in 1902, the roll has grown to a combined resident and nonresident membership of 164 in 1991. Today the club must contend with the concern common to every club whose essential strength is rooted in members having the time to dine together. The accelerating pace of daily life as well as the insatiable financial demands for maintaining staff and physical facilities threaten the continued existence of such clubs.
Nevertheless, the centripetal force of Franklin Inn Club members’ deep-seated affection for this quaint outpost of civility endures. After ninety years, it continues to be the reason for its existence.
Seymour I. Toll 1991
President (1981 – 84)
Member since 1973
(used by permission)
* Club Presidents, continued: Nathan Sivin, David Holmes, L. Matthew Dupee, Jonathan Goldstein, Janice T. Gordon, A. Deborah Goldstein, and Wesley D. Parrott.
The Franklin Inn Club
Hidden in a back alley near the theaters, this little club is the center of the City’s literary circle. It enjoys outstanding food in surroundings which suggest Samuel Johnson’s club in London.
Camac Street is a little alley running parallel to 12th and 13th Streets, and in their day the little houses there have had some pretty colorful occupants. The three blocks between Walnut and Pine Streets became known as the street of clubs, although during Prohibition they had related activities, and before that housed other adventuresome occupations. In a sense, this section of Camac Street is in the heart of the theater district, with the Forrest and Walnut Theaters around the corner on Walnut Street, and several other theaters plus the Academy of Music nearby on Broad Street. On the corner of Camac and Locust was once the Princeton Club, now an elegant French Restaurant, and just across Locust Street from it was once the Celebrity Club. The Celebrity club was once owned by the famous dancer Lillian Reis, about whom much has been written in a circumspect tone, because she once successfully sued the Saturday Evening Post for a million dollars for defaming her good name.
Camac between Locust and Walnut is paved with wooden blocks instead of cobblestones, because horses’ hooves make less noise that way. The unpleasant fact of this usage is that horses tend to wet down the street, and in hot weather you know they have been there. Along this section of narrow street, where you can hardly notice it until you are right in front, is the Franklin Inn.
The famous architect William Washburn has inspected the basement and bearing walls, and reports that the present Inn building is really a collection of several — no more than six — buildings. Inside, it looks like an 18th Century coffee house; most members would be pleased to hear the remark that it looks like Dr. Samuel Johnson’s famous conversational club in London. The walls are covered with pictures of famous former members, a great many of them cartoon caricatures by other members. There are also hundreds or even thousands of books in glass bookcases. This is a literary society, over a century old, and its membership committee used to require a prospective member to offer one of his books for inspection, and now merely urges donations of books by the author-members. Since almost any Philadelphia writer of any stature was a member of this club, its library represents a collection of just about everything Philadelphia produced during the 20th Century. Ross & Perry, Publishers has brought out a book containing the entire catalogue produced by David Holmes, bound in Ben Franklin’s personal colors, which happen to be gold and maroon, just like the club tie.
The club was founded by S. Weir Mitchell, who lived and practiced Medicine nearby. Mitchell had a famous feud with Jefferson Medical College two blocks away, and that probably accounts for his writing a rule that books on medical topics were not acceptable offerings from a prospective member of the club. So there.
The club has daily lunch, with argument, at long tables, and weekly roundtable discussions with an invited speaker. In the past, there was a monthly evening speaker at a Club Dinner, with the rule that the speaker must be a member of the club. Now, we often feature guest speakers at the Club Dinner. Currently, we have added monthly Evening Roundtable discussions featuring thought-provoking guest speakers at dinner. Continuing an old club tradition, once a year, on Benjamin Franklin’s birthday or on an evening close to it, the club holds an annual meeting and formal dinner. At that dinner, the custom has been for members to give toasts to three people, all doctors, including Dr. Franklin, Dr. S. Weir Mitchell the founder, and Dr. J. William White who originally endowed the dinner.
Some sample toasts follow:
(Toasted by Thom Nickels at the J. William White Memorial Dinner, January 18th 2013)
This is a
Toast to Ben Franklin and his Articles for a Treaty of Peace,
a Facebook friendship request to the Inn from Franklin himself.
There shall be eternal Peace, Friendship & Love between
the Franklin Inn Club & its namesake.
In order to maintain this friendship, the Inn on its part
agrees that Mr. Franklin shall come to visit whenever it
sends for him. As a benign warning, however: let there be
no neckties arranged on my bust that conjure the likeness
of a noose.
That he shall stay at the Inn as long as the Inn pleases. Or
as long as the Madeira holds out.
That he shall love no other Inn but the Franklin Inn even if
that is self loving to an unhealthy degree.
That he will stay away as long as he pleases,
even if that means becoming a non-resident
member in Florida, Nevada or California, or
vacating to other Clubs, the London Hell Fire Club
being one, or going off to France to urge Adams
to take a mistress, where—shocked—Adams will
say once again that he will do no such thing.
That when he is with the Inn, he will do what he
pleases, meaning doing the Tango with Tamara or
disassociating himself completely from modern
“let’s pretend” Franklins that do not represent him
in the least.
So, here, here!
(Based on a Franklin missive to a Madame Brillon Passy July 27, 1782
A Toast to Doctor Franklin
Benjamin Franklin’s formal education ended with the second grade, but he must now be recognized as one of the most erudite men of his age. He liked to be called Doctor Franklin, although he had no medical training. He was given an honorary degree of Master of Arts by Harvard and Yale, and honorary doctorates by St. Andrew and Oxford. It is unfortunate that in our day, an honorary degree has degraded to something colleges give to wealthy alumni, or visiting politicians, or some celebrity who will fill the seats at an otherwise boring commencement ceremony. In Franklin’s day, an honorary degree was awarded for significant achievements. So in that sense, it was more prestigious than an earned degree, which merely signified a preparation for later achievement.
And then, there is another subtlety of academic jostling. Physicians generally want to be addressed as Doctor, as a way of emphasizing that theirs is the older of the two learned professions. A good many PhDs respond by rejecting the title, as a way of implying that they have no need to be impostors. In England, moreover, surgeons deliberately renounce the title, for reasons you will have to get from them. Franklin even turned all this foolishness on its head. He invented bifocal glasses. He invented the rubber catheter. He founded the first hospital in the country, the Pennsylvania Hospital, and he donated the books for it to create the first medical library in the country. Until the Civil war, that particular library was the largest medical library in America. Franklin wrote extensively about the gout, the causes of lead poisoning and the origins of the common cold. By inventing bar soap, it could be claimed he saved more lives from infectious disease than antibiotics have. It would be hard to find anyone with either an M.D. degree or a PhD. degree, then or now, who displayed such impressive scientific medical credentials, without earning — any credentials at all.
A Toast To J. William White, MD
J. William White left a legacy to the Franklin Inn, the income from which was to pay for an annual dinner, with all the trimmings. Good as its word, the Inn holds the J. William White dinner every year on Benjamin Franklin’s birthday, although inflation and fluctuations of the stock market require it to make a modest charge for attendance. White also created the J. William White Professorship in Surgery at the University of Pennsylvania, a chair which was once occupied by Jonathan Rhoads.
These trust-fund memorials do little to convey the wild and glamorous image of Bill White. White was a member of the First City Troop, and fought the last known honest-to-goodness duel on Philadelphia’s field of honor (the center of Rittenhouse Square). The right and wrong of the argument are in dispute, but the details boiled down to White at the critical moment raising his gun to the sky and firing at the stars. That it was not a meaningless gesture was then brought out by his opponent taking slow and deadly aim — but missing him.
White was an academic in the sense that he was the first, unpaid, Professor of Physical Culture at the University of Pennsylvania. Active in the Mask and Wig Club, he was chief surgeon at Philadelphia General Hospital, chief surgeon to the Philadelphia Police, and chief surgeon to the Pennsylvania Rail Road. He was Chairman of the Fairmount Park Commission, and numerous other positions where political contact was more important than surgical skill. When World War I came along, he was off to France with the University of Pennsylvania Hospital Unit, writing two books with Theodore Roosevelt. Although his friendship with Henry James suggests greater literary talent, Roosevelt published more than thirty books. What emerges from the history of Bill White is flamboyance and lots and lots of unfettered energy. He might feel a little out of place at one of his endowed dinners today, but he was probably always a little out of place in any company — and didn’t care a whit.
A Toast To Silas Weir Mitchell, MD
Silas Weir Mitchell lived to be an old man during the Nineteenth Century, when it was unusual to get very old. He was an important part of both the Philadelphia medical scene, and the literary one. He became known as the Father of American Neurology as he published studies of nerve injuries caused by the Civil War. He published about 150 scientific papers, including famous investigations of the neurological effects of rattlesnake venom. His most famous medical treatment was the “rest cure” for hysteria, while his most enduring scientific discovery was the phenomenon of causalgia. He despised Freud, and psychoanalysis. No doubt the feeling was mutual, but the passage of time has tended to favor Mitchell more than Freud. The central role of sex is the essence of Freud’s viewpoint, while Mitchell’s is summarized in the remark that, “those who do not know sick women, do not know women.”
Struggling medical students can take heart from the well-documented fact that Mitchell applied to the Pennsylvania Hospital for an internship, and was rejected. Upset by the experience, he toured Europe for a year and applied again. He was again rejected. He later applied for the faculty at Jefferson, and was rejected, but his reaction to that was one of rage and vengeance. Just what these two episodes out of Philadelphia medical politics really mean, remains to be clarified by Mitchell’s biographers.
Mitchell’s second career was literary, publishing 12 novels and 5 books of poetry. He is honored as the founder of the Franklin Inn Club, for a century home to every important literary figure in Philadelphia. It is striking that he selected Benjamin Franklin as the guiding star of the Inn, since Franklin similarly was eminent in both science and culture, and an ornament to conversation and society. In a pacifist Quaker City, both men approved of combat, and his novel about Hugh Wynne stresses that his hero was a “Free Quaker,” meaning one who fought in the Revolution. Because of his strong Republican views, he was never made a professor at the local medical school.
Mitchell’s patient Andrew Carnegie donated the funds to build a new building for the College of Physicians when Mitchell was its President. When Mitchell was president of the Franklin Inn, Carnegie wrote him, asking for suggestions about donating a small sum, say five or ten million, and asking where it should go. That was the Inn’s big chance, all right, but somehow it failed the test. Mitchell suggested that the money be given to raise the salaries of college professors, thus perhaps suggesting that this veteran of many academic revolts did eventually soften his views.
Yet Another Toast to Dr. J. William White
Who was Dr. J. William White, and why do we drink a toast to him every year at our Annual Meeting?
I will answer my second question first: Dr. J. William White died on April 24, 1916, leaving a Will that he finally signed only on March 24 of that year. The Will, drafted by John G. Johnson, the most famous Philadelphia lawyer of that time, runs to 26 pages and disposes of an estate of $868,176.05,–which was real money in 1916.
Dr. David Hayes Agnew
Item 17 of that Will reads as follows:
“I give to the Franklin Inn Club of Philadelphia five of its bonds of $100 each to me belonging.
IN ADDITION TO THIS, I give to said Club the sum of $5,000 to be invested by the Directors of the Club, with the approval of the majority of the membership, and the income to be expensed in such way as will best subserve the interests of the Club and conduce to its perpetuation.
I will be glad if, in doing this, they can assure the occasional remembrance of my name. The Club has been of me the source of so much pleasure and happiness that I feel that I owe it something in return.”
Well, I have not examined the minutes of our Board to see if it really was discussed and voted upon by a majority of the members, but when I joined in 1968, I was told that Dr. White’s bequest had been used for this annual dinner in his memory as long as there was money to pay for it, then only to buy the champagne for the toast to his memory, and then in my time even the champagne money was drunk up.
We still talk about him. He was in every sense a “character”, a special Philadelphia character. A lot of this information comes from a biography his friend Agnes Repplier published in 1991. J. William White’s father James William White Senior was a doctor, the founder of Womens’ Maternity Hospital, and President of the S.S. White Dental Supply Company, an extremely successful business which operated until recently from a big building just down there on 12th Street. The Money that flowed from this business enabled our Dr. J. William White to do pretty much what he wanted all of his life.
He was very smart boy, strong, and with a bad temper. He got into fights at school, but he also managed to earn both an MD and PhD from the University of Pennsylvania in 1871, at the age of 21. He maintained a passionate loyalty to Penn all of his life. Directly after graduation, he obtained a job on a U.S. Coastal Survey ship, the Hassler, on a survey of marine life and ocean bottoms conducted by Professor Louis Aggassiz of Harvard. He was hired as a “Hydrographic Draughtsman” but it turned out he was to be the expedition photographer and film developer because nobody else knew how to do that. Before they sailed, he also wangled a job as correspondent for the New York Herald. They sailed from Boston in December 1871, explored their way around South America and arrived in San Francisco in August of 1872. On his way home by train, young Dr. White stopped in Salt Lake City to hear Brigham Young preach. Brigham Young preached against doctors and lawyers, and told the women in his audience that they should not employ obstetricians, that they and their babies would be better off without them.
When Dr. White returned to Philadelphia, he went to work, first as a resident at Philadelphia General Hospital, then a doctor for Eastern State Penitentiary, where he apparently lived for a while, where he took boxing lessons from a giant prisoner. By 1876 he was an Assistant Demonstrator of Practical Surgery at Penn, and a couple of years later he was working under the most prominent Philadelphia surgeon Dr. D. Hayes Agnew. In Thomas Eakins’ famous painting “Dr. Agnew in his Clinic” we can see Dr. White doing the actual cutting, while Dr. Agnew is giving the lecture.
This picture is also interesting because right there in the middle of the action is a stalwart female, the surgical nurse. By the time of this picture, both Drs White and Agnew were having trouble with the Board of Governors: female students were complaining that they were not allowed into these clinics. Drs Agnew and White replied that “the nature of the diseases and the conditions of the patients made the presence of females undesirable.” The doctors offered to quit and the Governors apparently backed down. But what about that nurse?
Another famous story: In 1877 Dr. White was elected to the First City Troop. For some reason this didn’t look right for a young doctor, because in these long years between wars, the Troop was know more for parties, banquets and balls than for national defense. However, he joined, enjoyed the parties and the riding. Previous Troop surgeons had worn regular street clothes; Dr. White put on the fancy Troop uniform. Probably at a party, a Trooper named Adams objected, became loud . Dr. White floored him. Mr. Adams sent a formal challenge to a duel.
Sensation! Nobody could remember a duel in Philadelphia, where it was against the law. The newspapers were in an uproar. The New York Herald, for which Dr. White once wrote letters from his voyage around South America, invented a story about a lady who was supposed to be the real cause of the fight. Mr. Adams and Dr. White, accompanied by seconds and a surgeon, crossed the Mason-Dixon Line, took single shots at each, shook hands and went home. Dr. White shot into the air. Years later, Adams confessed that he had aimed at Dr. White, but missed. Eventually the storm blew over, but it is remembered as the last duel around here — as far as I Know.
As to the City Troop, Dr. White’s Will left $5,000 in Trust for a “J. William White Fund, the income to keep remembrance of the facts that I served as Surgeon and was the first incumbent of that position to be directed by the Troop to wear the time-honored full dress uniform.”
I don’t know if the Troop bought champagne to keep remembrance.
Although Dr. White became one of the best surgeons here, and wrote several successful text books, he is mainly remembered for his passion for athletics. He was made the first Director of Athletics at Penn. He built the first Gymnasium, he built Franklin Field, he arranged for Army-Navy Games to be played here, he got his friend Theodore Roosevelt to attend, he spent every summer either climbing the Rockies or climbing the Alps together with his very sporting and strong wife, Letitia. Letitia was also a better shot than her husband.
Perhaps Dr. White’s most famous sport was called “Angling for Men”. He learned this sport on vacation in Narragansett Bay. The players are in a rowboat, and the contestant jumps into the water, with a strong rope tied around his waist. The Men in the boat try to haul the Swimmer back into the boat, while he resists. When Dr. White was 46 years old it took three of his friends 38 minutes to get him back within 100 feet of the boat, but they never got him in!