Article about Dr. Samuel Nunez and family


    By Dr. Alfred A. Weinstein

    Article published in the Harvard Medical Alumni Bulletin

    Summer 1961




    Early in 1732 the British Crown granted 10,000 pounds sterling to twenty-one trustees, noblemen,
    and gentlemen of Great Britain and charged them with establishing a colony named Georgia. This,
    the last British colony to be founded on American soil was to serve the head, heart and the
    pocketbooks of George II. It was intended as a buffer state for the protection of Charleston in the
    north from the Spanish at Saint Augustine to the south; in addition, it was to be a convenient
    dumping ground for the English poor. Finally, Georgia was to become a source of raw material for
    English industrialism. Six months later the medical history of Georgia began.

    Six months later, the medical history of Georgia began at Palace Court, London where a certain
    Dr. Cox, surgeon, offered his professional services to the immigrants for one year without fee or
    reward. His only stipulation was that the colonists build him a home and till fifty acres. However
    history loses all trace of Dr. Cox after this, and the only hunt of his fate is found in a record of
    grant of land. Garden No. 52 made in Savannah, July 14, 1733 to Frances, widow of Dr. William
    Cox.

    Strangely enough, medical help for this colony of Anglicans, when it finally came was furnished by
    a Jew through the backwash of The Spanish Inquisition which began during the reign of Queen
    Isabella.

    Spanish and Portuguese Jews had been forced to make the choice between compulsory
    conversion to Catholicism or death by fire or torture. Those who could fled to more friendly lands,
    among these , the Netherlands, Curacao, and the Racife in Brazil. Those trapped in Spain
    accepted death or conversion. Many of the Catholic Jews or Marranos (Pigs), as they were
    called, followed the precepts of their religion secretly, much as early Christians in the Roman
    period.

    One of the Crypto-Jews living in Lisbon in 1726 was a Samuel Ribiero Nunez. Although he was a
    member of a distinguished family and an admired physician with an extensive practice in that city,
    he and his mother, and his wife Rebbca and their two sons Daniel and Moses and daughter
    Zipporah, and servant Shem Noah were apprehended by the "Familiars of the Inquisition" during a
    Passover Service, " while seeking the Lord according to their prohibited faith". Thrown into jail,
    they were tortured repeatedly and would have soon perished except for the intervention of the
    Grand Inquisitor, a long time patient of the good doctor. The Catholic Ecclesiastical Council
    reluctantly agreed to release Dr. Nunez so that he could treat the Grand Inquisitor who was
    afflicted with a prostate obstruction of the bladder. First, however, they made provision for two
    officials of the Inquisition to live with the family to prevent another relapse into heresy.

    In his mansion on the banks of the Tagus River, Dr. Nunez frequently entertained the first families
    of Portugal and of Europe. One evening he was host to the Captain of a British brigantine
    anchored in the river. When the party was in full swing, the captain invited the guests and the
    Nunez family (accompanied by their Inquisitor keepers) to visit his ship.

    As soon as they were on board, anchor was weighed according to prearranged plan, sails
    unfurled, and the ship put out to sea and arrived safely in England. History does not disclose the
    fate of the ecclesiastical spies, or the natural history of the Grand Inquisitors medical problems.

    London Jews, who had been contributing liberally to the Oglethorpe scheme providing new homes
    for impoverished Christians in the new colony of Georgia, found it logical to provide transportation
    for their own poor. They chartered two boats and sent a total of ninety Jews to Savannah in one
    year. Sailing on the first of these boats was a Dr. Nunez and family, and forty other Jews. They
    arrived in Savannah on July 11, 1733, six months after General James Oglethorpe and his first
    batch of colonists. After this boat landed, Captain Thomas Corain, one of Oglethorpe’s aides,
    wrote, " Georgia will soon become a Jewish colony." He feared that if this news leaked out, rich
    Christians would not support the colony, and poor Christians would not settle there . The trustees
    urged Oglethorpe to remove them but, though he was annoyed by their arrival, he did not press for
    their departure. He knew that , in addition to the Scroll of law, Hanukah, Candelabrum, cult
    utensils, circumcision kit and Hebrew prayer books, these Jews also had a knowledge of
    agriculture acquired in Mediterranean lands. He wanted to use them as tools to create in Georgia
    a "Mediterranean colony of wine, olive oil, silk and indigo."

    Dr. Nunez’s arrival, however, was more than welcome since an uncontrolled epidemic of "bloody
    flux" and "malignant fever" was raging. Of the original one hundred and fourteen settlers, twenty-
    nine were already dead, while the survivors had hardly the strength to bury the victims in shallow
    graves. The formal remedies at his disposal were limited and were soon exhausted, but his training
    in botany helped make use of indigenous plants and and with great success. He made extensive
    use of laudanum (opium) to control the "bloody flux," and lemon extract to treat the scurvy which
    appeared in debilitated patients. He used ipecacuanha (emetine) empirically without knowing that it
    had a specific action on the amoeba histolytica. With infusions of cinchona bark (quinine) he
    treated the "malignant fevers" considered in the medical texts of the period to originate form the
    evil night miasmas of the marshes (malaria =mal aria= bad air). When his supply of chinchona
    bark was exhausted, he used as substitutes the bark of white oak, red oak, and dogwood. He used
    tartar emetic to produce vomiting in patients with food poisoning, jimson weed smoked in a pipe for
    asthma, and sassafras root tea as a "purifier of blood."

    The epidemic subsided, the colonists returned to their work, and Dr. Nunez built his home and
    settled his family. General Oglethorpe sent to the Trustees of the Colony a report of the help
    rendered by the first active practitioner of medicine in Georgia. These gentlemen requested
    Oglethorpe to pay that humane physician for medical service he had rendered to the colonists.
    The accounts of the colony do not indicate that payment was ever offered or received. (Received
    land on Ogeeche River).

    Dr. Nunez did receive help from another Jew named Abraham de Lyon, who had accompanied
    him on the original contingent in 1733. De Lyon was a farmer who grew peas, grain and rice. He
    was also a viniculturist by training, and succeeded in raising "beautiful, almost transparent grapes"
    in Savannah, from choice cuttings he brought with him from Portugal. He laid out a ten acre tract
    as a Botanical Garden (Trustees Garden) , and introduced to the colonists foreign plants with
    valuable medical properties and developed herbs which were native to Georgia.

    Two years later, Dr. Nunez met John Wesley, who arrived in Savannah with a commission from
    the Trustees appointing him to the office of "priest of the Church Of England" to the Savannah
    mission. Wesley courted the society of this Sephardic Jew, but had no illusions about the ease
    with which he could be converted to Christianity. Pastor Bolzius, the leader of the Salzburg
    Germans, and George Whitefield, another pioneer Methodist, had offered the Jews conversionist
    literature, which had been vigorously rejected. He exhibited a great interest in Dr. Nunez’s medical
    practice, and discussed with him the conduct and care of his patients. Said John Wesley, the
    Methodist, "I began learning Spanish in order or converse with my Jewish parishioners, some of
    whom seem nearer the mind that was in Christ than many of those who call him Lord."

    Before Wesley had left England for his priestly mission in Georgia in 1735, he had made
    "anatomy and physics the diversion in his leisure hours." In Georgia, he met John Regnier, who
    was a male nurse among the Moravians, and assisted Regnier with the first autopsy in Georgia.
    The two men listed among the causes of death as "a hematoma of the abdominal wall, among other
    things"! It was in Georgia that John Wesley became an active practitioner of bodily as spiritual
    healing among his parishioners, and on his return to England he organized the first free clinic " for
    the ill and ailing."

    The Trustees in England showed their interest in Dr. Nunez’s work and sent him "casks of wine
    and packets of drugs" to be used in treating the colonists. With "two barrels containing twenty-
    three deer skins, weight of Bears oil" and several parcels of " sea pod, make root, sassafras,
    china root, sumac, and contra-yerba." Dr. Nunez opened the first pharmacy in Georgia to
    compound his medications form imported and native grown herbs.

    Dr. Nunez watched with apprehension while General Oglethorpe made a series of aggressive
    moves southward toward Spanish Florida form 1735 to 1740. First came the fortifications of St.
    Simons Island and then the establishment of the British Fort in Frederica. Finally came the
    preparations and the disastrous attack and the unsuccessful alege of the Spanish Fort at St.
    Augustine. The beaten British troops brought news that the Spanish were planning on invading
    Georgia. The Inquisition was still a reality to Dr. Nunez and his family. His aunt, Abigail de Lyon,
    who had recently died in Savannah, carried to her grave the marks of the ropes which had tied
    her to a rack in a Portuguese dungeon. Dr. Nunez had given up an assured position of wealth and
    affluence in Lisbon to practice the faith of his Jewish forefathers. And he had no desire to expose
    his family and himself to the uncertain mercy of the Spanish Inquisitors again.

    Dr. Nunez paid his last visit to his patients, traveling by foot, horse and rowboat. He again
    assembled his family: his mother , his wife Rebecca, his two sons Daniel and Moses, his
    Portuguese-born daughter, Zipporah, his Georgia-born daughter Esther and his personal servant
    Shem Noah, and set sail for Charleston, South Carolina. The Portuguese Inquisition had been
    responsible for the arrival in Georgia of Dr. Nunez, gentlemen of letters, humane and skillful
    physician, the first active practitioner of medicine in this colony. The threat of the Spanish
    Inquisition was responsible for his departure from Georgia after he had helped sustain the
    colonists for seven long and arduous years.

    When the threat of Spanish invasion subsided, the family returned to Savannah. Dr. Nunez’s
    name fades in the mist of history but his qualities carried on in his children. His Son Moses
    became a man of wealth and distinction and a member of Oglethorpe’s Masonic Lodge .

    He served as Indian interpreter and agent for the Georgia Revolutionary forces. In his will he
    divided his property equally between his children born in and out of wedlock.

    Moses great grandson, Commodore Uriah Phillips Levy, was one of the highest ranking naval
    officers of the Civil War, and it was primarily to his credit that corporal punishment in the U. S.
    Navy was abolished.

    He purchased Thomas Jefferson,s home in Monticello when it was a disgraceful eyesore,
    recreated it, and, through his heirs, transferred it to the U. S. Government.

    The good seed planted by Dr. Samuel Ribeiro Nunez, urbane physician, distinguished man of the
    world, sturdy self-respecting Jew, matured into offspring who also loved mercy, did justly and
    clung tenaciously to their own interpretation of God.

    About the Author:

    In his own words, " a lover of baked beans and codfish balls," Dr. Weinstein is a graduate of both
    Harvard College and Harvard Medical School. He completed his residency in Boston and in 1939
    entered private practice in Atlanta, Georgia. He also teaches surgery at Emory University. During
    World War II, he saw active duty in the Philippines and was wounded during the Battan campaign.
    In 1944, he was taken prisoner and sent to Japan on a "hell ship" to take charge of a P.O.W.
    hospital in Shinagawa, Tokyo. Because of his demands for food and medicine for his patients, the
    Japanese  sent him to a coolie labor camp for three and one half years, and he emerged weighing
    105 pounds.

    He is presently on the staffs of Georgia Baptist, Spalding Pavilion and St. Joseph’s Hospitals in
    Atlanta, and is director of the Spaulding Pavilion for Registered Nurses. In addition to writing for a
    hobby, Dr. Weinstein’s sculpture has appeared in exhibits at the Fogg Art museum in Cambridge
    and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia.