Past and Present



Jewish World Review


Michael Feldberg

Old in wisdom,
tender in years

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- IN the Chatham Square Cemetery of Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue in New York City, Walter Jonas Judah lays buried, the first American-born Jew to enroll in medical school. Tragically, Walter Jonas Judah died at age 20, a victim of the yellow fever epidemic of 1798 that claimed the lives of more than 2,000 New Yorkers. Walter Jonas Judah perished with them because, unlike most of the middle- and upper-class New Yorkers who fled the city while the yellow fever raged, Walter Judah chose to remain with the ill and minister to their needs. As historian Theodore Cohen, MD, writes of Judah, “He succumbed to that which he had sought to assuage.”

Walter Jonas Judah was born in New York of humble origins. His father Samuel Judah was the American-born son of German-Jewish immigrant parents. Samuel married London-born Jesse Jonas in 1759, and together they had 14 children, the last of whom, Walter, was born in 1778. When Walter was three and a half years old, Samuel Judah died, leaving Jesse with twelve surviving children and little else. A resilient woman, Jesse Judah supported her large family through business and real estate investments. The Judah family was active in Jewish communal life, especially at Congregation Shearith Israel. At age sixteen, Walter Jonas Judah attended King's College (now Columbia University) and a year later entered the college's medical school.

As Dr. Cohen observes, “Medical education and practice were primitive in the colonial era.” Most doctors were not trained at a medical school, but rather learned their craft through apprenticeship to a practicing physician, who often combined medical education with training in another field such as barbering, butchering or the clergy. One historian estimated that, by the beginning of the Revolutionary War, only 400 of the 3,500 or so physicians practicing in the American colonies had formal medical degrees, most from European medical schools. The remaining number of American “doctors” learned their craft not through formal learning but through apprenticeship to a barber/doctor or butcher/doctor.

The medical school at King's College was founded in 1767, making it the second oldest medical school in his country (the University of Pennsylvania's, founded two years earlier, is the oldest). Since American colleges were primarily institutions for training Christian clergymen, it was relatively unusual for a Jew to attend one. Walter Jonas Judah was the second identifiable Jew to attend an American medical school and the first native-born Jew to do so.

Until the introduction of modern sewage systems in the late 19th century, epidemics of yellow fever often visited American cities during hot, humid summers. Yellow fever is transmitted through the bite of mosquitoes, which, as Dr., Cohen points out, “breed best in filthy, stagnant water.” The fever-bearing mosquitoes originally arrived in 17th-century America on ships from tropical ports and established themselves in cities such as New York, Philadelphia and Charleston. Even with today's miracle drugs, here is no known cure for yellow fever and the disease proves fatal in half the cases. The seven- to ten-day course of the disease is gruesome, evolving from fever and vomiting to abdominal pain, jaundice (thus the name yellow fever), kidney failure, coma and finally death.

When the epidemic erupted in July of 1798, Gershom Mendes Seixas, the leader of New York's Congregation Shearith Israel, urged that a special fund be created to aid the Jewish sick and poor during the crisis. Most of the congregation, apparently including Seixas, fled the city for cooler, drier climes, but Dr. Cohen estimates that at least 10 members of the New York Jewish community perished during the plague. Walter Jonas Judah could have taken refuge but chose instead to stay in New York and -although still a third year medical student- use his knowledge to help the sufferers.

Judah worked tirelessly for days with the afflicted, recommending courses of treatment and medications. For those who could not afford medicines, Judah took money from his own pocket to pay for them in the belief that they would help. In the month of September 1798, an average of 38 New Yorkers per day expired from yellow fever. That same month, the disease felled Judah and he passed away on the 15th. On his tombstone is the following inscription:

In memory of
Walter J. Judah
student of physic who, worn down
by his exertions to alleviate the
sufferings of his fellow citizens
in that dreadful contagion
that visited the City of New York
in 1798, fell a victim to the cause
of humanity on the 5th of Tishri [in the year] 5559. . .

Here lies buried/the unmarried man- /Old in wisdom, tender in years / Skilled he was in his labor, the labor of healing/ Strengthening himself as a lion and running swiftly as a hart to bring healing/ To the inhabitants of this city treating them with loving kindness / When they were visited with the yellow fever / He gave money from his own purse to buy for them beneficent medicines / But the good that he did was the cause of his death / For the fever visited him while yet a youth . . . /

Declare him and his soul happy / May they prepare for him his canopy in Paradise / And there may he have refreshment of soul until the dead live again and the spirit reenter them.

Recently, through the efforts of Dr. Theodore Cohen and historian Leo Hershkowitz, a street in lower Manhattan was named for Walter Jonas Judah.





Michael Feldberg is the director of the American Jewish Historical Society. Comment on this article by clicking here.

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© 2001 Michael Feldberg