Lewis Wolfley was born in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, on February 14, 1807, to John Wolfley and Elizabeth Heintzelman. When he was eleven years old, Lewis Wolfley travelled to Ohio with his older sister and her husband, and settled in Circleville, Ohio, where, at the age of eighteen, he was granted the right to practice medicine. He later moved to Athens, Ohio, to establish a private practice, but left in the fall of 1829 to attend the Ohio Medical College. After graduating, he settled in Lancaster, Ohio, where he resumed private practice.
Wolfley applied for the position of naval surgeon, and on June 22, 1832, he received his commission. He was first assigned to the sloop St. Louis at Norfolk, sailing to join the West Indies squadron in October, and then received an appointment to the U.S.S. Delaware , which was headed to the Mediterranean. In October 1835, when the Delaware sailed back to the United States, Wolfley remained in Paris to study medicine and witness operations under Dr. Velpeau. He left Paris in July 1836 and returned to Ohio. Shortly after his return, he sat for examination before the board of naval surgeons and was promoted to assistant surgeon on 8 November 1836. On February 14, 1837, he married Eleanor Ann Irvin.
At the end of 1838, Wolfley accepted an appointment to improve medical conditions at the Ohio State Penitentiary. When his six month term was over, in April 1839, he was offered a position in the directorate of the Ohio Lunatic Asylum, which he accepted. He was in this post for a month when he received orders to report to the Philadelphia Naval Asylum for service. After four months at the Asylum, he returned to Lancaster because of ill health, to recuperate and await further orders. On October 12, 1840, he was ordered to the U.S.S. Dale for duty with the Pacific Fleet. He was promoted to surgeon on July 29, 1941. In December 1841, while at sea, he received news from home that his wife had died of consumption. Wolfley's health, always precarious, gave way completely, and he received permission to return home. He spent some time in Ohio with his two sons, William and Lewis, before leaving them in the care of his mother-in-law, and returning to sea in the U.S.S. Decatur , this time heading for Africa. His mental and physical health again began to decline, and he suffered a complete mental breakdown. He was admitted to the sick list as mentally deranged on May 7, 1844. He was put ashore at Port Praya in the Cape Verde Islands under care of the American Consul. Wolfley was lodged in the guardhouse of the fort above the harbor of St. Jago Island. On July 21, 1844, he escaped from his prison, and threw