Dr. John Cullen: VCU’s Irish ancestor


On St. Patrick’s Day, everyone claims to have an Irish ancestor.

At VCU, we really do.

Meet John Cullen, who co-founded the Medical Department of Hampden-Sydney College, later called the Medical College of Virginia, the institution from which came Virginia Commonwealth University.

Like the university that bears his legacy, Cullen’s story spans disciplines—from chemistry to business to medicine. He was an entrepreneur, a trailblazer, and, by all accounts, a dazzling educator.

He would have fit right in at VCU in 2018.

Cullen was born in Dublin in 1797 and grew up in Grange, on Ireland’s northwest coast. He came to the United States as one of 50 passengers on a ship called the Commodore Perry, which landed in New York on May 26, 1817.

Apparently, he cast a striking figure. One contemporary wrote that Cullen “was a fine specimen of manhood. Everyone who saw him was struck with his splendid physique. His stature was large, full 6 feet tall, his person round, his face full with rosy cheeks, with every capillary filled with florid blood, his eye, a large laughing blue one, his hair light brown and disposed to curl. He can suit in voice, language, and manner the roughest Son of the Brogue, or the most courtly and polished gentleman.”

Five months after arriving in America, Cullen moved to Philadelphia to work as a chemist and had patented a medicated magnesia soda water, which he sold successfully from a shop on Chestnut Street, near the present day site of a memorial to Irish immigrants.

Cullen turned the soda sales over to his brother Patrick and enrolled in medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, earning his doctor of medicine degree on April 19, 1819. He moved to Richmond in 1820 and gained renown for lectures and demonstrations on chemistry and medicine for which he charged $10 apiece.

It made him a comfortable living. In 1827, he married an Englishwoman named Charlotte Howard, and they settled into a stately Governor Street home “with commodious offices on the first floor.” So grand was their estate, it later became an infirmary called Saint Luke’s House for the Sick and later, St. Luke’s Hospital.

Cullen joined fellow Richmond physicians Augustus Warner, Lewis Chamberlayne and Richard Bohannan in 1837 to start a medical school in the city under the charter of Hampden-Sidney College (as it was spelled then). Drs. Socrates Maupin and Thomas Johnson joined the fledging faculty by the time classed began on Nov. 5, 1838. Each man filled a distinct teaching role, Cullen serving as Professor of Theory and Practice of Medicine.

Rather than paying tuition in those days, students purchased tickets to attend medical lectures. Cullen’s course required a $20 ticket, and he earned as much as $1,000 each academic year from ticket fees.

Cullen remained at MCV until his death on Christmas Day 1849, at the age of 52. His son, John Syng Dorsey Cullen, later rose to leadership at the institution his father helped found, appointed as the fourth chair of the Department of Surgery and Dean of the Faculty in 1885.

John Cullen is buried at Hollywood Cemetery.

This St. Patrick’s Day, VCU proudly honors our Irish roots by remembering John Cullen, a visionary physician who helped launch a remarkable university.