City of Firsts – Discussion Summary

Greater Philadelphia Roundtable,
January 19, 2012

Hosted by the Franklin Institute

Following opening remarks by Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia co-editor Charlene Mires, roundtable facilitator Babak Ashrafi (Philadelphia Area Center for History of Science) introduced the panelists and discussion topic, “City of Firsts.”  Ashrafi observed that Philadelphia has long claimed the moniker “City of Firsts” for its history of groundbreaking achievements and innovations, specifically in the area of science and scientific institutions.  Ashrafi shared some information on the mission and activities of the Philadelphia Area Center for History of Science, which attests to Philadelphia’s continued primacy in the scientific field.    

The first panelist, Michael Zuckerman (University of Pennsylvania), began his comments with a summary of his essay “City of Firsts,” which was published in the Philadelphia Inquirer and on the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia website prior to the roundtable.   Zuckerman characterized pre-Revolutionary Philadelphia as a city whose creativity was unmatched and, by virtue of inventing political democracy and religious liberty, effectively laid the foundation for American culture, economy, polity, and society.  Describing how New York gradually eclipsed Philadelphia as the nation’s preeminent city in the nineteenth century, Zuckerman detailed a shift in Philadelphia’s mentality that belies its fabled humble Quaker mindset.  Even as the national capital relocated to Washington, D.C., and New York surpassed Philadelphia in population, Philadelphians responded with a “they’re bigger, we’re better” attitude and asserted the city’s primacy in architecture, transportation, culture, and medicine.  However, by the mid-nineteenth century, Zuckerman contended that Philadelphia stopped competing with New York and in doing so became the first “un-American city.”  Whereas municipal competition and boosterism typified American cities, Zuckerman argued Philadelphia gave up its braggadocio and underwent a transition from competitive to contented, as observed by visitors like Henry James and Lincoln Steffens.     

During his remarks, Zuckerman emphasized that, even as Philadelphia ceded its national primacy to New York, the city continued to lead the way in social and cultural advancements throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  In contrast to New York and Boston, the majority of Philadelphia’s citizens owned their homes and took summer vacations, reflecting a level of working-class well-being that was unique to Philadelphia.  Accordingly, Zuckerman remarked that the American Dream, a term coined by Benjamin Franklin, was first fulfilled in Philadelphia, which embraced a willingness to live and let live once it was no longer the principal model for other cities.  In closing, Zuckerman observed that, given Philadelphia’s status as America’s first city, its loss of primacy was virtually unheard of and contributed to its emergence as the City of Firsts.  As Philadelphia substituted pride of place for competition, Zuckerman concluded that the city became civilized in its own un-American way, an example he hopes the rest of the nation will someday follow.

The second panelist, Steven Peitzman (Drexel University College of Medicine), focused his comments on Philadelphia’s history of medical firsts, including the first hospital (1752) and medical school (1765).  As the center of medical publishing and education, and with the founding of many more medical schools and teaching hospitals, Philadelphia quickly became a “city of medicine,” a development that Peitzman termed unsurprising for a city of its size.  In contrast, Peitzman characterized Philadelphia’s later nineteenth-century medical firsts as more unexpected, such as the first medical school for homeopathy and the first female medical college.  To this point, Peitzman asked how such radical innovations could occur in what many considered a conservative, tame city.  Despite such innovations, Peitzman detailed how Philadelphia lost its medical edge during the first decades of the twentieth century, a decline perhaps revealed as the New England Journal of Medicine became the nation’s premier medical journal, displacing Philadelphia-based medical serials. New and well-funded institutions elsewhere, like Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, led the way in the budding field of laboratory research.  In the wake of such developments, Peitzman asserted that Philadelphia held its ground in medical practice and medical education and asked whether being first, or doing something well for a long time, becomes an impediment to doing something different.  Following up on that point, Peitzman compared Philadelphia’s history of medical firsts to the Baldwin Locomotive Works, specifically its difficulty transitioning to diesel engines as technology advanced.  Peitzman concluded his remarks by asking whether the age of firsts in medicine and science is over and reflected on how the history of firsts and lasts can inform our understanding of the historical record.

The third panelist, Grover Silcox (WLVT PBS39), began his remarks by sharing his personal reminiscences of growing up in Philadelphia and his love of history.  Summarizing the approach behind his documentary series “Philly Firsts,” Silcox praised the topic of firsts as one that provides a portal into a greater understanding of history.  Silcox delineated several notable Philadelphia firsts, including the cheesesteak and the modern detective story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841) by Edgar Allan Poe.  Silcox also identified Benjamin Franklin as the father of Philadelphia firsts, outlining his creation of critical civil service institutions such as the Free Library and Fire Company.  In spite of its status as the first planned city in America, Silcox detailed Philadelphia’s tendency to revise, devise, and improvise, inclinations that produced such notable achievements as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the American stock exchange.  In reference to these remarkable firsts, Silcox extolled Philadelphia as a city where men and women have discovered the spark of innovation and whose momentous advancements have spawned national institutions that we now take for granted.

Audience Discussion

Following the panelists’ presentations, moderator Babak Ashrafi reflected on the questions that each posed about the nature of historical firsts, particularly why firsts are difficult to discuss, how they are quantified, whether firsts become a hindrance to improvement, and what object lessons firsts provide for both history and future innovation.  Ashrafi then opened the discussion to questions from the audience.  Directed to Michael Zuckerman, the first question asked how the 1876 Centennial accorded with Zuckerman’s assertion that, after 1800, Philadelphia lost its national primacy and competitive edge.  Zuckerman responded that Philadelphia never completely purged itself of its competitive drive and observed that the runaway success of the Centennial did not change the reality that New York was still America’s preeminent city and that the country was gradually moving west.  Following-up on Zuckerman’s comments, one audience member remarked that the movers and shakers behind the 1876 Centennial were largely responsible for its success.  Zuckerman concurred, contrasting the triumph of the 1876 Centennial with the failures of the Sesquicentennial and Bicentennial celebrations, as well as detailing a survey that placed Philadelphia near the bottom of those destinations Americans favored for commemorating the 1976 Bicentennial.

Zuckerman’s summary of the preferred tourism destinations for the Bicentennial prompted several questions about tourism and Philadelphia’s marketing efforts.  One attendee remarked that Philadelphia is poor at self-promotion, to which Zuckerman replied that Philadelphia is not a city that considers self-promotion its fundamental reason for being and argued that the city’s lack of ongoing commitment to tourism promotion reflects the city’s temperament.  An audience member and native of New York concurred, commenting that, even in the nineteenth century, Philadelphia claimed more historical firsts than New York, yet New York retains its status as America’s preeminent city.  Another attendee then asked about marketing and promotion, specifically the efforts of Mayors Ed Rendell and Michael Nutter.  Recalling Philadelphia’s poor financial state in the 1990s, Zuckerman argued that Mayor Rendell saw tourism as a way to boost the economy and characterized his efforts as transitional rather than permanent.  Another attendee followed-up on Zuckerman’s comments by asking whether there is a correlation between individuals responsible for Philadelphia’s historical firsts and native ties to the city.  Steven Peitzman responded to the contrary, observing that, as in the case of Canadian teacher of medicine William Osler, many of Philadelphia’s notable innovations stemmed from an outsider coming to the city and shaking up the status quo.

Other audience questions were directed towards more specific issues, including the establishment of self-regulating medical schools and comparisons between Philadelphia and New Netherlands.  Citing Peitzman’s discussion of Philadelphia’s medical firsts, one attendee asked whether Philadelphia likewise led the way in establishing standards for medical schools and hospitals.  With reference to the Yellow Fever epidemic, Peitzman detailed developments in quarantine practices, but acknowledged that such practices were not particularly novel.  Additionally, Peitzman explained that hospital regulations developed in the 1880s and 1890s as part of a wider national effort once hospital treatment became more widespread and commonplace.  Finally, the last question concerned New Netherlands, specifically whether its history of egalitarianism and racial and religious pluralism rivaled Philadelphia.  Michael Zuckerman recognized that New Netherlands is a vexed question for colonial historians and argued that leaders like Peter Stuyvesant had no desire for pluralism, which was merely tolerated at the behest of the Dutch West India Company.  In contrast, Zuckerman emphasized that William Penn believed in religious diversity and made it a crux of Philadelphia’s identity and purpose.  Following the question and answer session, the evening concluded with small group discussions in which audience members shared additional comments and proposed topics for the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.

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