Abraham Lincoln’s Favorite Doctor
Dr. William Newell also represented the Monmouth Beach area in the US Congress
I’m a Lincoln man. I’ve probably read more than 50 books about our nation’s 16th president and consider Abraham Lincoln to be American’s greatest chief executive. It was Providence that put him on Earth — when we needed him most.
In my study of President Lincoln, I learned he had a great gift for friendship. One of his good friends during very trying times was a New Jersey physician and politician, William Augustus Newell. Though he doesn’t get a lot of notoriety, Dr. Newell was a truly accomplished man.
Born on September 5, 1817 in Franklin, Ohio, he graduated from Rutgers and then the University of Pennsylvania medical school (1839). He served as a US congressman (1847-51 and 1865-67) and Governor of both New Jersey (1857-60) and Washington Territory (1880-84). He was also the founder of the US Life-Saving Service (today’s US Coast Guard) and served as a White House physician (1865). Pretty impressive.
Among Newell’s congressional colleagues were Lincoln (who served one term 1847-49), John Quincy Adams (the only former president to serve in the US House, who died at the Capitol with Newell caring for him in his final hours) Henry Clay (“The Great Compromiser”), and Andrew Johnson (the nation’s 17th president).
Lincoln and Newell had adjoining seats in Congress and lived in the same Washington, DC, boarding house. The president called Newell “a true friend of the Union.” He and his wife Joanna raised four children.
“When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. That’s my religion.”
—President Abraham Lincoln
Newell also had a distinguished medical career and was an early adopter of plastic surgery. He was still taking care of patients when is died in August 1901 in Allentown, NJ.
In 1864, the year Lincoln was re-elected president, Newell was named a White House attending physician. During that time he was credited with treating and saving the life of the president’s son, Thomas “Tad” Lincoln, who had Typhoid Fever.
Mary Lincoln was particularly fond of the good doctor (“a most estimable gentleman” and “our particular friend,” said called him). In my readings, I saw several of the First Lady’s letters to Newell, asking him to join the family for dinners and other various events. It was for good reason that she liked having Newell around. The Lincolns had already lost two other young sons, Edward (in 1850 at age 4) and Willie (in 1862 at age 12), to illness. Tad wouldn’t live much longer either, dying in 1871 at age 18.
An account from Entertaining a Nation claimed that Mrs. Lincoln was given a demonstration of Newell’s life-saving techniques right on the beach during her celebrated trip to the Long Branch in the summer of 1861.
Lincoln also named Newell the superintendent of the US Life-Saving Association, NJ District in 1865. He had represented the Jersey Shore area (including the Monmouth Beach area) from Sandy Hook to Little Egg Harbor as a US representative. When a young doctor, he had watched helplessly from the beach as a ship was wrecked (the Perasto) and all passengers perished in an August 1839 storm.
Newell, like Lincoln, was a member of the Whig Party when he entered politics and later joined the Republican Party. During his political career, the doctor was an advocate for low taxes, balanced budgets, and improvements to the school system.
In my study of history — if you dig deep enough you will find a physician often playing a large part in history-making events. An old photo of Lincoln on the podium during the Gettysburg Address in November 1863 was recently uncovered and enhanced. And who else was up on the dais that fateful day in Western Pennsylvania at perhaps the greatest moment of President Lincoln’s life? It was Dr. William Augustus Newell.
So devoted to the family was Newell that he accompanied Mrs. Lincoln with the president’s body on the long ceremonial train ride back to Springfield, IL after the assassination in April 1865.