John Morgan vs. William Shippen: The Battle that Defined the Continental Medical Department

The War Years (1775-1783)

January 28, 2020
by Justin McHenry Also by this Author


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John Morgan and William Shippen, Jr. stood shoulder to shoulder in the crowd outside of old Westminster Hall on September 22, 1761. They were awaiting the appearance of the empire’s new king, George III, and queen, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz—their new king and queen. The two men were a few of the vast throng the likes of which London had never seen.

Though the coronation brought Morgan and Shippen together, their worlds entwined with one another time and time again. Born a year apart, the two men were both Philadelphians and travelers to the Old World to continue their medical education.

Shippen journeyed over a few years before Morgan. He finished his medical studies at the University of Edinburgh when Morgan arrived to begin his. Their paths crossed in London and they made the most of it. They both were young, ambitious, and hungry, wanting to make their marks and to represent America and Philadelphia.

While the coronation may have been the spectacle entertaining them, what was engrossing them were plans. They spent their brief rendezvous in London comparing notes and hashing out ideas. They wanted to bring medical education to America, so others would not have to do what they were doing and travel half a world away to receive an education. They wanted to bring that home. To their home in Philadelphia. Back and forth they went, bouncing ideas off of one another in the excited energy which young idealistic students seem to have. Ideas came easy and what they shared in common and their convergent paths seemed to spur on more and more ideas. Their time together in London was another coronation day. It was their day to ascend to the thrones of American medical education.[1]

The Ride
Nineteen years later the two were together once again, riding side by side. Silent riders on a dirt road. They were doctors now, two of the most respected and esteemed doctors in America. They were active participants of the continental cause in the Revolutionary War that raged around them.

Both had been in charge of the Continental Army’s medical department at some point during the war. And they could not hate each other any more than they did at that moment.

Morgan, the disgraced former Director General of the Medical Department, rode as a deputy judge advocate for the Continental Congress. Shippen, the current embattled Director General of the Medical Department, was riding under fire from the man in the saddle beside him. The two rode, collecting depositions together. It was a part of Shippen’s court-martial trial that Morgan brought about by years of complaints.[2]

How they got there and how this ordeal came about is a prime example of how the vainglorious pride of two men defined a key area of the Continental cause. Their drama caused ripples throughout the medical department. The turmoil fostered between one another would go to overshadow much of the problems that medical leaders faced during the war.

Budding Animosity
This is a story of jealousy and one-upmanship. Of chips on shoulders and imperceivable slights that would grow and grow over time like a river cleaves a valley.

Morgan was ambitious and arrogant to begin with.[3] Any knocks to his ego built and built up in him. It did not help matters that Shippen was popular. His energy and skills at speaking won him many admirers.[4] It came easy to Shippen where it did not for Morgan.

From Morgan’s perspective, he was always a step behind Shippen. Shippen had gone to Europe before Morgan to get his medical education. Shippen had given the first medical lectures while Morgan was still a student. And the biggest insult, other physicians referred to Morgan as Shippen’s “able assistant.”[5] This led to an extreme sensitivity on Morgan’s part.

This sensitivity would burst forth in actions like his badgering the Royal College of Edinburgh to name him the first American fellow. Shippen would be the second American named. There were other such instances but the real animosity showed when Morgan returned to America in 1765. It was then that he went about establishing the first medical school in America.

Morgan approached the Trustees of his alma mater, the College of Philadelphia, with his plan to create the medical school. He made a convincing argument. The Trustees decided to move forward with the idea right away and hired Morgan to be the first professor. Not present at that meeting was one trustee, William Shippen, Sr. He and his son were both irritated by what they perceived to be duplicitous actions on the part of Morgan. Father and son Shippen, two of the most eminent medical figures in the city, were not consulted before or afterward. They felt left out of the decision-making process, which they were.[6]

In the decade before the Revolution, a personal war was taking place in Philadelphia. It would ebb and flow with intensity. Their war had its battles like the founding of the medical school, commencement speech slights, and put-downs elsewhere. In these peaceful days, it was comical how often and over what the two would butt heads over. There was an endless supply of nastiness. It was passive-aggressive. It was plain aggressive.

Morgan poked Shippen during a commencement speech: “It is with the highest satisfaction I am informed from Dr. Shippen, junior, that in an address to the public as introductory to his first anatomical course, he proposed some hints of a plan for giving medical lectures amongst us. But I do not learn he recommended at all a collegiate undertaking of this kind.”[7]

Shippen poked Morgan right back in his application to the board of trustees: “I should have long since sought the Patronage of the Trustees of the College, but waited to be joined by Dr. Morgan, to whom I first communicated my Plan in England, and who promised to unite with me in every scheme we might think necessary for the Execution of so important a point. I am pleased however to hear that you, Gentlemen, on being applied to by Dr. Morgan, have taken the Plan under your Protection, and have appointed that Gentleman Professor of Medicine.”[8]

They could not help themselves to clash like this. Their personalities and history with one another, being what they were, meant they could not rise above the pettiness. When the real war started and their skills were most needed they let this bitterness seep into the Continental cause.

The Medical Department
In many ways the medical situation for the continental army was a hot mess and remained as such from start to finish. The first Director General of the Medical Department was accused of treason. The second was fired, and the third faced a court-martial. It was a fractured, haphazard system that never coalesced—due in large part to the near-constant bickering between Morgan and Shippen, though their bickering was not unique. It went on between regimental surgeons and leaders, between Congress and the heads of the medical department. Everybody was in on it.

The Continental Congress established the medical department in 1775 to oversee the Army’s general hospitals. What the department didn’t do at the time was centralize the day-to-day medical care for soldiers. Each regiment’s surgeon handled those duties. Regimental surgeons stocked and maintained the medical stores. They established a regimental hospital and also provided battlefield care, the quality of which fluctuated depending on the surgeon since surgeons had to supply their medical stocks out of pocket most of the time. The relative wealth of the physician played a factor in the level of their care. Could they afford the medicine or the blankets, etc.?

Each colony set up their own board to parse out the qualifications for regimental surgeons and then assign them to a military unit. At the outbreak of the war, there were around 3,500 physicians practicing in the colonies, 1,200 of whom would go on to serve with the Continental Army. Of those only approximately 100 had medical degrees.[9]

Congress never defined the role of the medical department or the job responsibilities of the director general from the start. They did not recognize the existence or importance of regimental surgeons. They lacked foresight on how to handle operations when the war spread from the confines of Massachusetts into other areas. It was no accident that a Massachusetts physician, Benjamin Church, was first selected to oversee the department.

Church tried to standardize the level of care and establish general hospitals. Massachusetts regimental surgeons acquiesced to his directions. As more and more troops from around the colonies poured into the Boston area they ignored Church’s efforts. This same issue would arise time after time. Regimental surgeons bristled at the commands of the director general. The director general then would withhold supplies. A vicious cycle ensued. This happened so often and across all regimes that it became standard practice. Things became so acrimonious between the regimental surgeons and Church that General Washington had to step in. It was during this inquiry process that Church’s days became numbered as he got caught up in allegations of providing intelligence to the British.[10]

Morgan as Director-General
Church’s downfall paved the way for John Morgan to become the next director general in October 1775. Washington preferred Shippen, but elements within Congress pushed for Morgan, and they got their man. Washington’s suspicions proved to be right from the start. Morgan took an exorbitant amount of time putting his affairs in order in Philadelphia. He then spent more time gathering supplies and medicines before heading up to Washington’s headquarters in Cambridge.[11]

The situation Morgan walked into was less than desirable and offended his particularness. Hospitals were in complete disorder with no organization and few supplies. Never the most endearing of persons, Morgan proceeded to alienate himself by running afoul of the regimental surgeons. He battled with them over everything—how they handled or mishandled their supplies, how they caused the spread of smallpox during the Canadian campaign, how they all were incompetent and not up to his medical standards. For their part, the disparity in their pay upset the surgeons.[12]

Not only did he have these internal managerial issues, but Morgan had to deal with an unsympathetic Congress. A Congress that never provided him with enough supplies. A Congress that when called upon to make the situation better always managed to muddy the waters even more, like when they appointed Dr. Samuel Stringer as the medical director of the Northern Department. Morgan, a man who as we have seen was sensitive to slights and questioning of his seniority, chafed at this move.

What time he had as director general he spent lobbying Washington, Congress, and whomever to try and get them all to recognize his ultimate authority in all things medical in the Army. Consternation built and built over the course of a year, October 1775 to October 1776. This left Morgan playing catch up and fighting with one faction or another.[13] Congress was getting tired of all the bickering and recriminations and they sought to reform the medical department.

Shippen Enters the War
It had taken Shippen some time to join the war effort. In the summer of 1776 he became the chief physician to the flying camp of Gen. Hugh Mercer.[14] Washington established the flying camp to be mobile, to be able to respond and commit to battlefield situations quicker than other units. Morgan saw Shippen’s commission as another attack on his command—Shippen the usurper. He became convinced that Shippen took the post as a ploy for gaining his job as director general.[15]

Who knows if this was Shippen’s plan all along? It could be that Morgan’s thinking it was the truth willed it into actually transpiring that way. When those two were near one another it did not take long for the drama to kick in.

In October 1776, with little prompting and for unknown reasons, Congress directed Shippen to open a hospital in New Jersey. They also directed Morgan to open one on the east side of the Hudson River in New York. That was it. No further details or guidance about the relationship between the two hospitals. Morgan understood this to mean that Shippen establish a hospital for the flying camp stationed in New Jersey. Shippen took it to mean he was now in charge of all patient and medical operations in New Jersey. Seeing as Washington was starting the process of evacuating from New York altogether and heading to New Jersey, the interpretation was significant.[16]

This set off a major round of appeals by both men. Morgan appealed to George Washington who sided with him. Shippen appealed to Congress who sided with him. As it was Congress who made the final decision on the matter, Shippen won out. Morgan blamed Congress for undermining his authority. In response, Congress began investigating the medical department and Washington personally admonished Morgan, writing to him, “the clashing betwixt Dr. Shippen and yourself was no small cause of the calamities that befell the sick in 1776.”[17] The investigations would serve to be the death knell for Morgan as director general with Shippen playing no small part.

In December 1776, Shippen wrote to his brother-in-law Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, a member of the Continental Congress. He complained that directors weren’t directing and the actual care of the sick fell upon untrained and ignorant mates. Then, he called for a series of reforms.[18]

The hammer fell for Morgan on January 9, 1777 when Congress dismissed both him and Samuel Stringer “without any reason assigned.”[19] The firing blindsided Morgan. Neither had he heard the charges or complaints against him nor was he given the opportunity to respond to the complaints. It riled him. With wounded pride and righteous indignation he spent the remainder of the war trying to clear his name and sully the name of his successor.

Shippen, the Medical Director
Shippen was the next person in line to take over the Medical Department and in April 1777 Congress appointed him as director general. Along with this appointment came significant changes to the structure of the department. Shippen teamed up with fellow physician Dr. John Cochran to propose a series of changes, all based upon the British model.

The Shippen-Cochran model created a figurehead director general in charge of all medical department operations, while regional deputy director generals were in charge of hospitals in their areas. The changes created specific job descriptions for every position in the command down to the regimental level. In theory, this presented a clearer chain of command under the director general, thus cutting down on waste and confusion. The same problems of lack of supplies, lack of Congressional support, and lack of cooperation from regimental surgeons remained, however.

The Shippen era wasn’t as smooth as many had hoped it would be. Shippen himself was an affable, charming man, well-mannered and cultured. At the time, beyond Morgan, he had no known enemies. Generally, he was well-liked and well-respected. The hope was that he could use his personality in conjunction with his many personal connections to help the medical department.

This never transpired. Congress continued to be stingy with funds and supplies. Shippen seemed content with the status quo and did not press Congress for more. A general feeling emerged that he wasn’t doing enough. Throughout his tenure Shippen remained in Philadelphia. At this stage of the war the main Continental forces were operating in and around Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Still he made few trips to any of the regional hospitals under his command.[20]

Shippen kept up his lecturing duties. Socializing (and even gambling, if the rumors were true) interested him more than the day-to-day departmental business. This lackadaisical approach from the beginning, and on the heels of criticizing the former directors for not directing, left him vulnerable to criticism.[21]

There was one person who was ready and willing to pounce on any and every misstep or perceived abuse of power—John Morgan. For the four years that Shippen served as director general, Morgan had only two goals in life: clear his own name and disparage Shippen’s. These two goals were one in the same in Morgan’s eyes. For four years, Morgan attacked Shippen in letter after letter to Congress, to individual members of Congress, to anyone who would listen.[22]

As each letter led nowhere, the anger, hatred, and frustration grew and grew. It reached the point where Morgan wanted (or needed) to confront Shippen face to face. His adversary got wind of the ambush and slipped out before it could even take place.

Morgan had managed to win one convert to his cause, Benjamin Rush. Rush went on to echo Morgan’s complaints in his role as a member of the Continental Congress. He teamed up with Morgan and hounded Shippen and Congress to do something for years, issuing near constant criticism along the way.[23]

The Court Martial
Rush and Morgan leveled five specific complaints against Shippen, all dating to 1776 (before he was even director general) and 1777 (right as he took over the job): fraud—Shippen sold hospital stores as his own and moved them at government expense and in government-owned wagons; speculation in hospital stores and “adulterating” wine in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; not keeping regular set accounts for the hospital department; neglect of his hospital duties which led to the death of soldiers; and behavior unbecoming an officer and gentleman for his attacks on Morgan.[24] It took years of griping but in March 1780 Congress brought court-martial proceedings against Shippen. Those five complaints served as the basis for the court-martial.

Morgan urged for a speedy trial, because he was afraid that protracted proceedings would give Shippen time to bribe witnesses. While there is no evidence of bribery, Shippen did use delaying tactics. He claimed the original charges were never served to him. He objected to the gathered depositions because he wasn’t present at the time. The result was the two adversaries riding together to collect depositions.

The delaying tactics worked and the court-martial dragged on for months over these backs and forths. Shippen got off. It was a combination of technicalities, his connections, the fact that the specific charges were now years old, and that it was such an obvious personal vendetta by Morgan (regardless of whether the charges were true).[25] Shippen did not, however, escape completely unscathed. His reputation received a considerable tarnishing. Now Congress generally found him somewhat reprehensible. They came out of it convinced they needed to overhaul the medical department once again.

Under this reorganization, Congress gave themselves an increased say on personnel decisions. They further streamlined staffs, and increased staff efficiency. As somewhat of a surprise, they appointed Shippen again as medical director of the army. It was short-lived, though—he resigned his commission almost immediately in 1781.[26]

After the War
For the first time in his life, John Morgan was directionless. He had lost his enterprising spirit. He got into a land speculation battle in upstate New York with William Cooper, the father of James Fenimore Cooper, over a piece of land that would become Cooperstown. He also faded away from the medical school he founded. The trustees did elect him as chair of theory and practice in 1783 but he never taught another class. The administration tried to get him to either teach or resign. He kept ignoring them. In 1785, his wife, Molly, passed away and it left him feeling more adrift and lost. He even lost his love for Philadelphia. He was planning to move in with his brother in Princeton, New Jersey, and began the process of selling off personal items, but the move never happened. In the fall of 1789, he caught a chill, which turned into influenza. Benjamin Rush came to attend to him but there was nothing he could do. John Morgan died alone in his empty house on October 15, 1789 and was buried alongside his wife in a marker-less grave in St. Peter’s Church.[27]

Unlike Morgan, Shippen kept up his teaching and lecturing in Philadelphia. In 1791, he returned to the University of Pennsylvania as a professor of anatomy, surgery, and midwifery. It was in the latter subject where Shippen distinguished himself most. He provided the first courses on midwifery and helped to advance the work and profession of midwifery in America (the University of Pennsylvania has a professorship of obstetrics and gynecology to promote family planning and women’s health named for Shippen). He went on to help found the College of Physicians and Surgeons and serve as its president. Well into the first decade of the nineteenth century, he taught and practiced medicine. He passed away at Germantown, Pennsylvania, in 1808.[28]

Morgan and Shippen’s battles with one another defined early medical education in America and then the Medical Department during the Revolutionary War. Who knows what the medical situation could have looked like if they just put their interpersonal problems behind them or just left each other alone. That proved to be too much to ask for either man and they hindered the war efforts as a result.


[1]Whitfield J. Bell, John Morgan: Continental Doctor (Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 1965), 52.

[2]Ibid., 232.

[3]Fellow Philadelphian physician, Barnabas Binney, called Morgan “the most implacable, revengeful man under the Heavens.” Mary C. Gillett, The Army Medical Department, 1775-1818 (Washington, DC: Center of Military History, 1981), 29.

[4]Charles Caldwell, An Eulogium on William Shippen, M.D. (Philadelphia: J. H. Cunningham, 1818), 8-9,

[5]Caspar Wistar, Eulogium of Doctor William Shippen (Philadelphia: Thomas Dobson & Son, 1818), 25,

[6]Betsy Copping Corner, William Shippen, Jr.: Pioneer in American Medical Education (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1951), 109-110,$b658610&view=1up&seq=9.

[7]John Morgan, A Discourse Upon the Institution of Medical Schools in America (Philadelphia: William Bradford, 1765), 34,

[8]As quoted in Corner, William Shippen, Jr., 109-110.

[9]Gillett, The Army Medical Department, 18-19.

[10] “Dr. Benjamin Church and the Dilemma of Treason in Revolutionary Massachusetts,” The New England Quarterly 70, no. 3 (1997): 443-62. The most recent study is John A. Nagy, Dr. Benjamin Church, Spy: A Case of Espionage on the Eve of the American Revolution (Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, 2013).

[11]George Washington to Joseph Reed, November 20, 1775, in The Writings of George Washington, Vol. III (Boston: American Stationers Company, 1889), 167,

[12]John Morgan to Samuel Adams, June 25, 1775, in Papers of the Continental Congress, 1775-1789 (Washington, DC: National Archives),

[13]Morgan himself provides a pretty lengthy rundown of abuses hoisted upon him while serving as director general in a vindication publication which he presented to the Continental Congress to clear his name but also had published in an effort to do the same in the public eye. John Morgan, A Vindication of his Public Character in the Station of Director-General of the Military Hospitals, and Physician in Chief to the American Army (Boston: Powars and Willis, 1777),

[14]Washington to William Shippen, Jr., November 3, 1776, in Papers of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789 (Washington, DC: National Archives),

[15]Morgan, Vindication, XXII-XXVI.


[17]“Charges against Sullivan and Morgan, in Papers of the Continental Congress, 1775-1789(Washington, DC: National Archives),

[18]Shippen to Richard Henry Lee, December 17, 1776, in American Archives Fifth Series, Vol. 3 ed. Peter Force (Washington: U.S. Congress, 1853), 1258-1259.

[19]Samuel Adams to John Adams, January 9, 1777, in Letters of Members of the Continental Congress, Vol. 2 (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institue of Washington, 1923), 212,

[20]Gillett provides a good concise overview of Shippen’s tenure as Director General. Gillett, The Army Medical Department, 38-44.

[21]Shippen to Medical Committee, in Misc. Letters to Congress, 1775-1789(Washington, DC: National Archives),

[22]The file of Morgan’s campaign to clear his name and take down Shippen’s runs hundreds of pages and includes a full copy of his Vindication. In it are depositions that he collected and copies of letters he and Rush sent to Congress. “Charges against Sullivan and Morgan, in Papers of the Continental Congress, 1775-1789 (Washington, DC: National Archives),

[23]Benjamin Rush to Morgan, July 17, 1779, in Papers of the Continental Congress, 1775-1789 (Washington, DC: National Archives),

[24]Morgan to Samuel Huntington, December 30, 1779, in Papers of the Continental Congress, 1775-1789 (Washington, DC: National Archives),

[25]“Charges against Sullivan and Morgan, in Papers of the Continental Congress, 1775-1789 (Washington, DC: National Archives),

[26]Shippen to Medical Committee, in Papers of the Continental Congress, 1775-1789 (Washington, DC: National Archives),

[27]Bell, John Morgan, 259-264.

[28]Wistar, Eulogium, 29-36. Corner,William Shippen, Jr., 119-124. Louis C. Duncan, Medical Men in the American Revolution, 1775-1783 (Carlisle Barracks, PA: Medical Field Service School, 1931), 299-300,

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