A pioneer physician in the Virginia colony

Hobnobbing with ‘the rich and famous’; treating those with mental illness
Hobnobbing with ‘the rich and famous’; treating those with mental illness
The role of Jewry in the expanding culture, prosperity and destiny of the United States had been minimal until the great Jewish diaspora of the 19th century.Certainly there was passing mention of clusters of Jewish immigrants as early as the New Amsterdam and Newport enclaves, but these were mere footnotes in the swell of great historic happenings. One such footnote pertained to a John de Sequeyra, an early immigrant to Williamsburg, Va.

De Sequeyra, a Portuguese Jew exiled to England, was born in London in 1712. The de Sequeyras were a distinguished and learned family, with five generations engaged as practicing physicians. They were congregants of the Iberian (Spanish and Portuguese) Bevis Marks Synagogue of London. The first of the Portuguese de Sequeyras affiliated with this landmark synagogue was Abraham de Sequeyra who died in 1679.

Surviving synagogue records indicate that a grandson, also named Abraham, was a practicing physician near Aldgate Road. This synagogue, established on Plough Field off Bevis Marks Road, is the oldest surviving Jewish house of worship in Europe, with uninterrupted services for more than three centuries.

In 1736, young John de Sequeyra left England for Holland to study at Leiden University’s great medical school under the mentorship of Herman Boerhaave. He received his doctorate diploma on Feb. 3, 1739, which was made out to “Iohannes de Sigueyra, Anglo-Britannus, Portugalensi.” His doctoral thesis on the causes of pneumonia was dedicated to his older brother Joseph, who was then a physician in East India.

Following graduation, John took passage on a ship sailing to the Americas. A French warship captured his ship and all of his possessions, including his diploma, were confiscated – the War of the Austrian Succession, 1739-1748, was then in progress. John eventually arrived in Virginia and immediately established his medical practice in Williamsburg, joining four other physicians there (George Riddel, Peter Hay, William Pasteur and John Galt, who later served as surgeon general of the 15th Virginia Regiment). The Jews identified in Northern Virginia, including one Enoch Lyon, a merchant in Yorktown, were marginally tolerated so long as they did not openly worship or “engage in theological disputations and denials of the Trinity.” And so, John paid all of the local taxes, including the required annual tithe to the established Anglican Church.

For the next 50 uninterrupted years, the bachelor John de Sequeyra practiced his profession of medicine, wrote an extensive epidemiological text called “The Diseases of Virginia,” and was principal physician during the local smallpox epidemic. Amongst his many patients in May 1769, was George Washington’s stepdaughter, Martha Park Custis, a victim of epilepsy; his circle of friends included Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry and James Madison.

Eighteenth-century English tends to be permissive in the spelling of proper names. Thus, de Sequeyra is sometimes spelled as Sequera, Seccari, Secarri or Secueyri.

John’s hobbies included a preference for Portuguese vintages, especially port. He was a member of a local society for the appreciation of rare vintages, with a yearly prize for the best regional wine “in quantity not less than ten hogsheads.” Thomas Jefferson, in his published diaries, mentions de Sequeyra as an accomplished horticulturist (part of his lease, in Williamsburg, included unrestricted use of the well and flower garden adjacent to his rented home) and Jefferson declared that it was de Sequeyra who brought tomato seeds from mainland Europe to the farms of Virginia.

De Sequeyra’s greatest contribution, however, was made in his seminal role in the designing and promoting – and later serving as chief physician for – what had been variously called the Williamsburg Lunatic Hospital, the Hospital for the Maintenance of Lunatics, Idiots and Persons of Insane Mind or, merely, the insane asylum. By whatever name, the facility was the first hospital in the colonies for the sole purpose of protecting, caring for – and sometimes curing – the mentally ill of the community. De Sequeyra served as chief physician for its first two decades.

In February 1795, at age 83, and after 50 years of medical service to the citizens of York County, Va., John de Sequeyra died. His passing was duly noted in the archives of the community. A solemn portrait of him properly wigged (inscribed on its back as a painting of John Secarri who brought tomatoes to the New World) is preserved in the Winterthur Museum in Delaware (founded by Henry Francis du Pont), but de Sequeyra’s burial site remains unknown.

STANLEY M. ARONSON, M.D., (smamd@cox.net) is a retired Brown University medical school dean.