For the Record: Medical lecture tickets

When formal medical education began in North America in the 1760s, students were required to purchase tickets to attend a course of faculty lectures.

Medical schools were proprietary in nature, with the faculty comprised of independent entrepreneurs who directly collected fees from students, practicing doctors, and apprentices, and then issued admission tickets to lectures.

For more than a century, medical faculty in the United States and Canada ran the medical schools. The faculty controlled who was admitted into their programs, the school’s curriculum, and its standards for graduation.

At both private and university-affiliated schools, professors earned their wages from the ticket sales, after paying the school for costs to rent the classroom or lecture hall.

At many schools, including Penn, medical students would pay a matriculation fee to the school, then take the matriculation card to each professor to purchase lecture tickets. The process could require a student to approach several professors across campus to pay fees to receive tickets that admitted them to courses.

Handwritten, the lecture tickets included the date of the presentation, the student’s name, and the name of the course. Many faculty members signed their names on the front or back of the cards. The tickets were often written on plain paper cards, but some earlier tickets were written on playing cards, as in the accompanying photo of one from 1771.

In later years, the tickets were printed from engraved plates. Tickets from the late 18th century and early 19th century show the influence of neo-classical design in ribbon and fretwork borders. Anatomy professors presented some of the more graphic tickets, which included an image of a skull or dancing cadavers.

The lecture ticket system was discontinued in the late 19th century after medical schools began paying a flat salary to professors. 

For more information about this and other historical events at Penn, visit the University Archives online.