Nathan Dorsey, Surgeon

Nathan Dorsey. Son of Nathan Dorsey (1731-1773) and Sophia Owings (1731-?), Nathan Dorsey was born in 1754 based on a 1806 obituary which notes his age as 52. The oldest of fours brothers and one sister, Dorsey grew up in Ann Arundel County, MD at “Waverly”, the home his father built between 1756 and 1764 on a tract known as “Ranter’s Ridge” located on the Old Frederick Road near Woodstock. Records show that Nathan Dorsey took the Oath of Allegience in Baltimore County, MD in 1776. He was appointed as Surgeon’s Mate on the Maryland Navy ship Defence under Captain James Nicholson on 1 March 1776 arriving “the evening the Defence set off from the wharf and thus went on board”. He succeed Dr. George Budd as Surgeon aboard the Defence in September 1776, now under the command of Captain George Cook. Dorsey appears on the list of officers and men on the ship dated 19 September 1776. On 10 February 1777, Nathan Dorsey entered the Continental Hospital Department and Navy as Surgeon, and was assigned to the Continental Navy brig Lexington under Captain Henry Johnson. Dorsey sailed with the Lexington to France on 26 February 1777 and was probably aboard during the cruise of Captain Lambert Wickes’ squadron from 28 May 1777 to 27 June 1777, during which some twenty prizes were captured or destroyed. It is speculated that Dorsey may have left service on the Lexington in late June 1777, however this does not appear to be the case. He was captured with the Lexington on 20 September 1777 and escaped across the English Channel to Paris by 20 October 1777 where according to the Deane Papers, he was advanced money. Returning to the States, Dorsey served next under Captain John Barry¬†on the frigate Raleigh’s fatal final cruise in the Continental Navy. Although no roll of officers and men on the ill-fated voyage is known to exist, Dr. Dorsey is identified in the pension applications of both Aaron Fish and Edmund Pratt as being attached to the Raleigh. Fish’s testimony indicates Dorsey was the ship’s surgeon although the rejected and more suspect application of Pratt suggests Dorsey was the Surgeon’s Mate acting under James Geagen. Either way, it is probable that Nathan Dorsey was one of the fortunate crew to escape in one of Raleigh’s three boats. Likely, the doctor accompanied the Raleigh’s ten wounded in the engagement to the mainland adjacent to the Penobscot River before rejoining his escaped shipmates from Boston. Within two months of the Raleigh’s capture on 28 September 1778, Dorsey like others from the lost vessel, was attached to the frigate Confederacy then building at Norwich. Nathan Dorsey served aboard the Confederacy from 25 November 1778 while she was still under construction until her capture in April 1781. The Collections of the Connecticut Historical Society, include a copy of the receipt for an advance on his wages dated 25 November 1778 from the Navy Board Eastern Department in Boston for “the sum of Twenty four pounds on acco’t of my wages on board Ship Confederacy having Signed two receipts of Equal tenor and date per Nathan Dorsey”. According to Cathcart’s pension record, Dr. Dorsey was the Surgeon onboard during his tenure. The Autobiography of Charles Biddle records Dorsey as surgeon on the ship Confederacy on 4 December 1779 and the one to certify Major Robert Scull’s death at sea during her second major cruise with John Jay onboard. According to Colonial and Revolutionary Families of Pennsylvania, Nathan Dorsey was responsible for attending the American prisoners on the prison ship Jersey during the four months of his captivity after the capture of the Confederacy on her third and final cruise. British surgeons were reluctant to treat the prisoners in the squalid conditions of the prison ships and assigned captured American doctors for the task. Dr. John White succeeded Dorsey on the Jersey upon his exchange. Nathan Dorsey was paroled from New York on 20 August 1781 and returned to Philadelphia. In his diary account of 1 October 1781, Robert Morris indicates that he granted Dr. Dorsey a leave of absence from the Navy. Congress settled Dorsey’s account associated with his service on the Confederacy to 17 August 1781, probably the date he left the prison ship in New York. According to payroll records in the Barry-Hayes Collection at the Independence Seaport Museum, Dorsey served on the Alliance under Captain John Barry from 28 November 1782 to 30 March 1783. He was paid $123 for his four months and three days of service as “Doctor” on the Continental frigate. The Alliance was in L’Orient, France when Dorsey was recruited to replace the ship’s Surgeon James Geagan, who had been arrested by Captain Barry on 26 November 1782 with five other commissioned and warrant officers. Geagan, formerly the ship’s Chaplain, had succeeded Surgeon John Linn who had taken a leave of absence on 22 July 1782. It is not clear how or why Dr. Dorsey was in France in November of 1782, however it may be speculated that he got there aboard one of the three American ships in L’Orient at the time; the General Washington under the command of future crewmate James Josiah, the ship Washington under Joshua Barney or the St. James under Alexander Cain. Nathan Dorsey retired from Navy service in May 1783 just prior to his marriage to Ann Sword, daughter of Captain William Sword and Penelope Haley, at the First Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia on 7 May. In the same year, Dorsey located his medical practice on Front Street between Walnut and Spruce. The 1790 Census, notes the “physician & druggist” was located on the East side of Front Street in the Dock Ward at 132 Front Street. Although some accounts suggest Dorsey fathered no children, the 1790 Census lists eight dependents and it is known he had at least three children. Presumably born shortly after the Dorsey marriage in 1783, son John Sword Dorsey was appointed Midshipman in the Navy on 28 April 1801. He was assigned to the brig Siren under Captain Charles Stewart of Commodore Edward Preble’s squadron during the First Barbary War. Tragically, he was killed in action off Tripoli with Lieutenant James Caldwell and other eight sailors on 7 August 1804 when an enemy shell found the powder magazine of Gunboat #9, a Tripolitan prize on which they were serving as part of a 26 man crew. The destroyer USS Dorsey which saw service between 1918 and 1946 was named in his honor. Daughter Louisa Ridgely Dorsey was born on 6 May 1792 in Philadelphia, married the Honorable George Read 3rd (1788-1837) of Delaware on 19 April 1810 and died in 1835. Interestingly, their daughter Ann Dorsey Read married Captain Isaac Stockton Keith Reeves who was named after Isaac Stockton Keith (1755-1813), co-pastor of the Circular or Independant Church of Charleston for twenty-five years. Isaac Stockton Keith was the younger brother of Robert Keith (1747-1784), chaplain of the frigate Confederacy and Dr. Nathan Dorsey’s shipmate on her cruise to Martinique with John Jay. A third child, daughter Ann Dorsey married Levi Hollingsworth in 1812 in New Castle County, DE. Nathan Dorsey’s wife Ann died sometime between her mother Penelope’s death in 1793 and when a protracted lawsuit over her maternal grandmother’s estate was heard in 1835. He obtained a medical diploma in 1787 from the Medical College of Philadelphia. Later that year, Dr. Dorsey was recruited by his former commander Captain John Barry for a cruise to China on the ship Asia in company with the Canton commanded by Thomas Truxton. On 1 December 1788, the Asia sailed downriver from Philadelphia with Revolutionary War veterans First Mate James Josiah and Second Mate John Ewer Sword (1765-1810), the brother of Dorsey’s wife and a merchant operating out of Philadelphia and New Castle. Captain Barry, Dr. Dorsey and the two young supercargos Jonathan Mifflin and John Frazier, rowed out from League Island on 14 December to join the ship just before her departure. The Asia returned to Philadelphia on 4 June 1789. In 1793, he was elected a junior fellow of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia where he joined the celebrated Benjamin Rush on the roll of Fellows. Nathan Dorsey was appointed Surgeon General of the Pennsylvania State Militia on 22 September 1794. Dorsey was elected to 3 year term as assistant secretary-general of the General Society of Cinncinatti beginning in 1799. He was also appointed Lazaretto Physician for the Quarantine Station at Tinticum on the Delaware in 1805. Dorsey is suspected to be a member of St. John’s Masonic Lodge No. 116 of Philadelphia. Nathan Dorsey died in Philadelphia in 1806 and was buried in Saint Paul’s Burying Ground on 4 July. St. Paul’s Church was located on Third Street near Walnut. A miniature painting of Nathan Dorsey by Charles Wilson Peale is extant in the collection of a private party in New Castle, DE and it is reported that the Maryland Historical Society collections include a group of manuscripts associated with Dr. Dorsey and his family.

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One Response to Nathan Dorsey, Surgeon

  1. Anon says:

    Dr. Nathan Dorsey had three known children: Louisa Ridgely Dorsey who married Mr. Read of Delaware. Anne Dorsey who married Levi Hollingsworth, and John Sword Dorsey who was commissioned an officer in the U.S. Navy by Thomas Jefferson and died in the battle of Tripoli in 1804. A monument which bares his name resides at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD.

    Dr. Dorsey had three known brothers and one sister. He was the oldest of the family born ca. 1754 given that his age at his death was listed as 52 in his 1806 obituary. He had a brother named John who was mentioned in his grandfather’s will. He also had a brother Vachel Dorsey born 1756 who married Clementina Ireland daughter of Capt. John Ireland of Doughoregan Manor. Vachel is thought to have served in the Continental Army. His youngest brother, Dr. Samuel Dorsey was born ca. 1770. He moved to Missouri and then to Mississippi and left a large family. His sister, Priscilla, married a Mr. Reid. There is no further record of her or her brother John.

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