Centuries of Penn Med student stories

Medicine has changed immensely throughout the school’s more than 250 years of history, and so has the process of becoming a doctor.

In 1768, the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine held its first commencement, granting bachelor’s degrees to 10 medical students, and in 1771, four of those students were granted the first medical degrees at the school.

Now known as the Perelman School of Medicine (PSOM), the school has come a long way, now having 168 graduates in the Class of 2022 and ranking among the nation’s best medical schools.

Michaela Hitchner and students in a med school class standing, some with clipboards.
Michaela Hitchner in an anatomy course in her first year at PSOM. (Image: Penn Medicine News)

Medicine has changed immensely throughout the school’s more than 250 years of history, and so has the process of becoming a doctor.

In the 1700s, finding a school in the nation wasn’t even an option, until 1765 when Penn’s School of Medicine was founded—the first and only medical school in the 13 colonies. “There would be a contract drawn up and you would essentially work and do whatever the physician asked you to do as part of your training to understand medicine yourself,” says Stacey Peeples, lead archivist for Pennsylvania Hospital, which was the nation’s first hospital, founded in 1751.

Fast forward more than two centuries later. The image of a medical school student and doctor have drastically changed. When third-year PSOM student Michaela Hitchner was a child, she was fascinated by her pediatrician’s fun energy, having a roller-skating hobby and offering popsicles to calm a sore throat, which inspired her to pursue a career in medicine. A New Jersey native, Hitchner didn’t have to travel far for her studies at PSOM.

Across the country in California, Rahael Borchers pivoted towards medicine after finding her passion for patient care. Originally a political science major working in the nonprofit sector, she became interested in medicine through an internship at San Francisco General Hospital. She completed a post-baccalaureate program and applied to PSOM, excited to gain skills to help patients improve their lives. Now a fourth-year student, Borchers leads student involvement at the Refugee Clinic at the Penn Center for Primary Care, is a clinical volunteer at Puentes de Salud, and volunteers with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a refugee resettlement organization.

“I always knew I wanted to be involved in service, and explored different ways to do that,” Borchers says. “Medicine combines direct service with the kind of intellectual challenge that excites me the most. It’s such a privilege and joy to be a part of patients’ lives, and there is always so much more to learn and discover in medicine.”

This story is by Julie Wood. Read more at Penn Medicine News.