Sunday, December 13, 2009

Thomas Welsh

Years Served: 1790 to 1825

Dr. Thomas Welch was one of the longest serving Port Physicians in the history of the Boston’s island quarantine program. He was born in Charlestown on June 1, 1752 the son of Thomas and Mary Welsh. He was fifth Thomas Welch in an unbroken line of Welch that extended back a century in the town to Sergeant Thomas Welch who was admitted to the Charlestown church in 1650. Thomas Welch went to Harvard and graduated in the class of 1772. He was an excellent student and was the faculty voted him the Hopkins Prize for his scholarly work at the end of his freshman year. His leadership abilities were noted at an early age when his fellow classmates chose him as the Vice President of the Speaking Club and later he was chosen the ensign, the fourth ranking officer, when the student body decided to organize a militia company in 1771.

After graduation he studied medicine with Dr. Isaac Foster (A.B. 1758) of Charlestown and when the Massachusetts Council of War engaged Foster to care for the wounded minutemen in April 1775, Welch assisted him. While he did not have a military appointment he assisted Dr. Foster in his care giving work. On October 21, 1775 he was given an appointment as a surgeon with the Nineteenth Regiment. The following year, he served with the twenty seventh infantry of the Continental Army in the campaign for New York and in New Jersey at the battle of Trenton.

He returned from his service in 1777 to marry Abigail Kent of Charlestown. They were married on December 11, 1777, eleven months after his discharge. His marriage brought him into contact with American royalty since Abigail’s was the first cousin of Abigail Adams. Through this connection the Adams family became good friends and frequent visitors when in Boston. His political connections included the Brooks, Gorham, Otis, and Warren families. Complementing his political affiliations, Welch had a growing number of medical friends especially after he helped form the Massachusetts Medical Society in 1781. He became its treasurer, a position he filled from 1782 to 1798. He later served as its corresponding secretary from 1805 to 1815 and its vice president from 1815 to 1823. Working with Nathaniel Appleton, one of his Harvard classmates, he served as an editor of the first volume of the medical society’s Medical Communications. He also served as the medical officer for the hospital built by the Treasury Department on Castle Island, temporary quarters for Boston’s marine hospital. His range of civic mindedness is revealed by his willingness to serve on the town’s school committee from its creation in 1789 to 1822.

Welch served as the town’s Port Physician, holding that office from 1790 to 1825, longer than any single man in the history of Boston’s quarantine program. He transformed maritime quarantine by establishing medical oversight of quarantine practices on Rainsford Island and relying on consultation with other physicians to improve medical decision making. For virtually the entire 18th century, Island Keepers ran the town’s quarantine station under the direction of the Selectmen. Prior to the Revolutionary War, the Selectmen occasionally brought physicians into consult on quarantine and contagious disease issues. However, after Welch was selected to the port physician post the duties of the island keeper gradually were subordinated to those of the physician and he was made the chief overseer of maritime quarantine affairs. This shift in power would not have happened without an individual with the medical knowledge, political connections and administrative abilities of Welch.

Unfortunately for all of his skills, he was not a great businessman. He tried his hand in commerce and failed miserably, filing for bankruptcy in April 1802. In later years, he relied almost exclusively on his salary as Port Physician to cover his expenses but even this salary was not always sufficient to cover his debts. Welch died in debt at his residence on Sudbury Street in Boston on February 9, 1831. No other physician had more influence on public health policies and quarantine practices in Boston than Dr. Welch.

To learn about other Port Physicians that worked on Boston's maritime quarantine program, go to the Port Physician blog:


Wright, C. E., & Hanson, E. W. (1999). Biographical sketches of graduates of Harvard University, in the Classes of 1772-1774. Boston, MA: Massachusetts Historical Society.

Vidich, Charles, Germs At Bay (forthcoming Book on Boston Quarantine)

No comments:

Post a Comment