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December 23, 2020 5:20 am

The Story of Philadelphia’s First Jewish Doctor

avatar by Harold Brackman


The Liberty Bell is seen in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Feb. 12, 2015. Photo: Reuters / Charles Mostoller.

Sometimes, the biographies of individuals and cities intersect in ironic ways. A case in point is Dr. David Nassy, a leader of Dutch Suriname’s Sephardic Jewish community, who became Philadelphia’s first Jewish doctor during 1793’s yellow fever epidemic.

Nassy was a dedicated Enlightenment thinker, who nonetheless supported slavery. He felt threatened by the political tumult after the French Revolution, not only in Holland but in Dutch new world colonies. So he moved to Philadelphia, bringing with him his slave Mattheus, a skilled carpenter. Under Pennsylvania’s 1780 emancipation statute, Nassy was compelled to free Mattheus, but permitted to keep him as an indentured servant for seven years.

Nassy had chosen 1792 to leave Suriname for Philadelphia — just before the “yellow fever” caused perhaps 20% of Philadelphia’s population of 50,000 to flee as well as an additional 10% mortality.

Nassy’s experience in Philadelphia affected both its political and medical history. First, his pro-slavery views clashed with the city’s Jewish community, which was notable for its commitment to abolition. Second, he advanced a diagnosis and treatment for yellow fever that placed him at odds with the early United States’ leading physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence, Dr. Benjamin Rush.

Rush assumed that yellow fever was spread by the unsanitary local environment, despite his having observed patients suffering from the true cause — mosquito bites. He urged a treatment of drastic bleeding, combined with purges.

Nassy noted that there were immigrants to Philadelphia from the West Indies who seemed to have recovered from the fever and developed immunity. Regarding treatment, Nassy favored a milder regimen of wines (“claret and Rhenish or Lisbon or Madeira diluted with rich lemonade”) and twice-daily baths.

Neither Rush nor Nassy was entirely correct about the yellow fever, but the modern consensus is that the Jewish doctor wisely avoided prescribing drastic bloodletting and purgatives.

The differences between the two physicians spilled over into politics. Rush’s camp was aligned with the Jeffersonian Republicans, and Nassy’s with the conservative  Federalists of Alexander Hamilton.

In Nassy’s time, newcomers from Suriname and Santo Domingo (Haiti) — including Jews — immigrated to American cities from Charleston to New York. Their harrowing stories further inflamed white Southerners’ fears of imported diseases and slave revolts.

Nassy, despite his Enlightenment views and support for Jewish political emancipation, was out of step with Jewish and non-Jewish Philadelphia opinion in favor of ending slavery. Although elected to the American Philosophical Society, Nassy decided to return to Suriname in 1795 — with Mattheus.

Then as now, disease panics fed fears and division.

Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).

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