Talk not to me of doctors

IT was called a Golgotha for unsuspecting mariners. A land of disease and death. A distant, dismal necropolis.

Key West’s early years saw many felled by sickness and entombed in its soil. Sent there to enforce the nation’s sovereignty and protect commerce, American soldiers and sailors were the main vectors of disease, and made up the majority of its victims. The scale of the island’s adversities was understated or overstated, depending on whose material fortunes stood to rise or fall with them, leaving most outsiders wary of the place. No one, not even those with a degree of knowledge about medical matters, could be faulted for shunning it.1

Dr. Henry S. Waterhouse landed on the island in August 1828 with “trembling apprehension.”2 A physician of some note in Vermont, a lecturer in medicine at the state university, Waterhouse came to this reputedly blighted southern outpost not on a mission of mercy bringing crucial aid, but on a gamble that living in its warm climate would improve his own chronic poor health. It meant leaving his wife and a young son behind in the north.

By the time the Yankee doctor arrived, authorities both military and mercantile had done a good deal to better the island’s situation. The devastating fevers of prior years seemed to have abated. Waterhouse, restored and reinvigorated, could with singular satisfaction claim Key West “to be as healthy as any other place in America.”3

A newspaper advertisement of Dr. Henry S. Waterhouse for drugs “suitable for the diseases of warm climates.”

That impression didn’t deter him from speaking out against persistent threats to public health, or from making far-reaching recommendations for its improvement. He saw the deadly outbreaks of the past as the result of improvidence and intemperance, and believed future ones could be avoided by changing human behavior, especially with regard to liquor. While pleased to share a flask of wine at Ellen Mallory’s hotel, Waterhouse saw the locals’ overindulgence in stronger spirits as a kind of “slow suicide.”4 Among his many recommendations were deepening or extending channels between landlocked ponds and the sea, clearing unwanted vegetation, improving ventilation in the town (“wide and straight streets are necessary”) and curtailing “scenes of revelry, broils, and beastly drunkenness, which, to our shame be it spoken, occur so often in this place.”5

How ably Waterhouse practiced his physician’s art we are not permitted to know. William A. Whitehead, who arrived on the island barely two months after him, withholds judgment. In the fourth of his Reminiscences of Key West, published in 1877, Whitehead mentions the doctor’s intelligence, his learning and his library (the largest in town), but prefers to draw from recollections of his odd appearance and still odder habits to draw an amusing and memorable portrait.6

William Combe’s character Doctor Syntax, as portrayed by Thomas Rowlandson.

Waterhouse was a slight-framed figure with a sallow complexion. A set of substantial false teeth–fashioned, their wearer was convinced, from “a tusk of the hippopotamus”–accentuated the cadaverous character of his face. Seated on his front porch facing Whitehead Street, or inside his “mosquito-netted door” if need be, the doctor filled adjacent Clinton Place with melodies from his violin, cheering himself, if not the neighborhood. An eager conversationalist, he scanned and treated as factual items of unknown authorship and sometimes doubtful veracity that appeared on a bulletin board outside his door. A personage as dogmatic as he was credulous, Waterhouse invited comparison to a well-loved character of English satire, an eccentric divine called Doctor Syntax. According to Whitehead’s sketch the denizens of Key West regularly referred to him by that name.

Whatever his value as a physician and as a source of amusement, Waterhouse helped the city fathers see that a healthy island would be a prosperous one. “This town,” he advised them, “would not only cease to improve–it would be deserted, were sweeping sickness to prevail as in former years.”7 Named the first postmaster on the island, Waterhouse advanced Key West’s business interests by lobbying for better mail links with the mainland. He tended, however, to perform his postal duties with more exuberance than was warranted. The volume of mail being light at first and prepaid postage stamps still decades away, Waterhouse had to postmark letters in pen and ink, writing the amount due or the word SHIP, PAID or FREE. When handstamps were finally issued, Whitehead recalls, the doctor was “as much pleased as a child with a new play-thing,” and prevailed on friends to have all their mail stamped whether going by post or not. In Whitehead’s possession was a single letter on the outside of which the zealous postmaster had used all his stamps, incongruously marking it SHIP, PAID and FREE.8

Once well established on the island Waterhouse sent for his family, but the journey so compromised his wife’s health that no medical treatment could save her. On her death in 1832 Waterhouse might have repeated the mournful words spoken by Dr. Syntax at his own wife’s demise:

                                 Talk not to me
Of Doctors, man, who for their fee
Would thin mankind: O what a strife
‘Twixt Physic’s arts and human life.9

With an eye to what Whitehead calls “a more extensive practice and new openings for business,” the doctor boxed up his library, medicines and furnishings and moved with his son in 1834 to the ill-starred settlement at Indian Key. He and the boy perished off the coast in a squall the following winter.10

William Whitehead’s first stay on Key West, from October 1828 through April 1829, gave him ample reasons to seek a physician’s care. The many hours he had spent surveying and mapping the island left his legs painfully swollen and savaged by sand fleas and other biting insects. At the end of the survey work he visited Cuba and contracted a form of smallpox. In none of his torments is he known to have sought the ministrations of Dr. Waterhouse, who advertised smallpox vaccinations while Whitehead was away in Havana.11 But a couple of weeks’ recuperation on Key West got Whitehead on his feet once more and able to return to New Jersey.

A part of Waterhouse’s record of deaths on Key West, kept and updated by William A. Whitehead.

He would be back, of course, and in the coming years preserve and add to the medical data that Waterhouse had gathered during his years in the Keys. The statistics on deaths and diseases kept by Waterhouse and Whitehead showed that “a residence in Key West,” in the latter’s words, “is not subjecting oneself to all the evils that flesh is heir to, as is generally imagined.”12

In the character of Henry Waterhouse, Whitehead detected a “well developed disposition to look after his own interests.” Assuming the doctor’s mantle in some measure Whitehead promoted Key West as a healthy place to do business, but remained alive to more than just its commercial possibilities. For him the charms of island life outweighed “all the unpleasant circumstances attending it.” What Whitehead considered the island’s foremost annoyance, its periodic visitations from mosquitoes, proved too banal and transitory an affliction to alienate him from a place of “so many delights.”13

Copyright © 2018-2023 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] For Key West’s early battles with epidemics, both of sickness and of adverse publicity, see Ashby Hammond, “Notes on the medical history of Key West, 1822-1832.” Florida historical quarterly 46.2 (October 1967) 93-110.

[2] “I cannot so soon forget,” Waterhouse wrote on 13 March 1829, “the fear, the trembling apprehension with which, in August last, I landed in this place.” Key West register, and commercial advertiser 19 March 1829 2:4.

[3] Ibid. 2:5.

[4] William R. Hackley, Diary, entry of 22 February 1831, in Goulding Collection, Special Collections, Florida State University Libraries, Tallahassee, Fla. Waterhouse believed that more deaths could be attributed to intemperance than any other cause but fever. See the note to his “Statement of deaths at Key West, Florida,” preserved by Whitehead and now in the Florida Miscellaneous Manuscripts Collection, P. K. Yonge Library of Florida History, Special Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida.

[5] Waterhouse addressed his recommendations to the Key West city council in a memorial of April 1829. They were printed in the Key West gazette of 18 July 1832 1:3-4.

[6] The letterbook copy of Whitehead’s manuscript of the Reminiscences is preserved at the New Jersey Historical Society in Manuscript Group 734. They were printed serially in Key of the Gulf, the columns of which Whitehead pasted into his personal copy of Walter C. Maloney’s A sketch of the history of Key West, Florida (Newark, N.J. 1876). That volume, now at the University of Miami, was the basis for the edition by Thelma Peters, “William Adee Whitehead’s Reminiscences of Key West,” Tequesta: The journal of the Historical Association of Southern Florida 1:25 (1965) 3-42. Some of the clippings show publication dates added in pencil: number 4 probably appeared on 23 April 1877.

[7] Key West gazette 18 July 1832 1:3.

[8] For Waterhouse’s involvement in the postal affairs of Key West see Clarence Edwin Carter, ed. The territorial papers of the United States. Volume XXIV. The territory of Florida 1828–1834 (Washington 1959) 134-7, 564-5, 624-7. On one occasion the Postmaster General chided him gently for unnecessary duplication in his reports: see ibid. 453.

[9] William Combe, The second tour of Doctor Syntax, in search of consolation (London 1820) 12.

[10] The accident was reported in the Key West enquirer 24 January 1835 3:1. The sale of his estate, “consisting of a splendid Library of choice books, together with a lot of Medicines, & well kept Furniture,” was advertised in the Key West enquirer 11 April 1835 3:4.

[11] In fact he procured the vaccine from Havana, according to the Key West register 19 March 1829 2:3.

[12] William A. Whitehead, Notices of Key West for John Rodman Esq. St. Augustine, written December 1835, 10a, manuscript copy in Florida Miscellaneous Manuscripts Collection, P. K. Yonge Library of Florida History, Special Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida. The text was printed in Rember W. Patrick, ed. “William Adee Whitehead’s description of Key West,” Tequesta: The journal of the Historical Association of Southern Florida 1:12 (1952) (61-73) 71-72.

[13] Of the mosquitoes Whitehead wrote that “their attacks can be in a great measure guarded against, so that we are not deprived of all comfort even in the height of their season, and possessing as we do so many delights, from the climate and other sources, we should not violently complain at their molestations for a month or two.” Ibid. 10b (Patrick 72).

Images: 1) Drugs and medicines, from Key West register, and commercial advertiser, 11 June 1829. 2) Doctor Syntax by Thomas Rowlandson, from the frontispiece of William Combe, Doctor Syntax’s three tours: In search of the picturesque, consolation, and a wife (London 1868). 3) “Statements of deaths at Key West,” courtesy of P. K. Yonge Library of Florida History.

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