Manuscripts Division
William L. Clements Library
University of Michigan

Finding aid for
Lewis Wolfley Letters, 1837-1840

Finding aid created by
Terese Austin, September 2008

Summary Information
Title: Lewis Wolfley letters
Creator: Wolfley, Lewis, 1807-1844
Inclusive dates: 1837-1840
Extent: 17 items
The collection consists of 17 items containing 18 letters (one item contains letters from two different correspondents), addressed to Lewis Wolfley, a Navy surgeon. All of the correspondents are doctors, most with naval appointments. Topics include almost exclusively Navy matters, including political debates concerning the Navy during the period, but also scattered references to medical cases and treatments, and some details of financial transactions.
Language: The material is in English.
Repository: William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan
909 S. University Ave.
The University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1190
Phone: 734-764-2347
Web Site:

Access and Use
Acquisition Information:

1996. M-3212.1; M-3223.10.

Access Restrictions:

The collection is open to research.


Copyright status is unknown.

Processing Information:

Cataloging funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the "We the People" project.

Preferred Citation:

Lewis Wolfley Letters, William L. Clements Library, The University of Michigan


Materials are arranged chronologically.


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

Collection Scope and Content Note

This collection consists of 17 items (containing 18 letters) addressed to Lewis Wolfley: 9 letters are from N. C. Barrabino, a surgeon in the United States Navy; 5 are from V. L. Godon, an assistant naval surgeon; 4 are from various correspondents. Most of the material refers to naval matters: general lack of funds, rumors of officer appointments, the convening of examination boards, pending courts martial, etc. Barrabino also discusses the public debate about charges of naval corruption. He mentions a series of letters published in the Richmond Whig by the pseudonymous Harry Bluff (in reality, Matthew Fontaine Maury, a naval officer), criticizing the bureaucracy and inefficiency of the navy and calling for reforms. Barrabino admits that the navy is guilty of many of the charges, but blames "the abuses and contemptible trickery of the Left since the commencement of Jacksonism…" (25 August 1838).

Another political topic addressed is the question of whether the Navy should have its own Surgeon General. Although Barrabino initially supports the idea, upon reflection, he concludes that it would be a mistake: "…consider how humiliating it would be for a fleet surgeon to receive medical instructions from, probably, a pompous ignoramus at Washington" (27 March 1838).

Several letters refer to medical matters. In the letter of 1 February 1840, V. L. Godon inquires after the health of Wolfley's family following their journey from Philadelphia back to Lancaster, Ohio. Wolfley's son had been ill with smallpox, and Godon sends more than his regards: "I had provided myself with some vaccine matter of the original stock imported about 40 years ago, with which I have succeeded to my satisfaction. I enclose you with great pleasure a portion of the scab." Godon also describes several interesting medical cases and treatments (3 June 1840, 2 September 1840) and the autopsy of a man who died of tuberculosis (3 June 1840).

Subject Terms

    • United States. Navy--History--19th century.
    • United States. Navy--Surgeons.
    • Medical care--History.
    • Autopsy--History.
    • Smallpox--Vaccination--United States--History--19th century.
    • Barrabino, N. C.
    • Godon, V. L.
    Contents List
    Container / Location Title
    Box   23, Small Collections  
    Lewis Wolfley letters,  1837 February 21-1840 September 2 [series]