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Dr. William Rumney: American Patriot and Washington Family Physician

Introduction: Dr. William Rumney


On July 18, 1774, the City of Alexandria will remember an important document called the Fairfax Resolves. In a previous post, I wrote about the history of the Fairfax Resolves. This article is the first in a series on the signers of the Fairfax Resolves. The article is specifically about Dr. William Rumney, who was a Revolutionary War veteran and also the Washington family physician for many years. Unfortunately, there are not many photos or pictures that I could find associated with Dr. Rumney. Pictured is the current Alexandria City Hall. At this location formerly stood the Fairfax County Courthouse where the Fairfax Resolves were signed on July 18, 1774.


Calling the Doctor


In the latter part of the 1760s, Dr. Rumney's services were desperately needed. The daughter of Martha and stepdaughter of George Washington struggled with epileptic seizures. Her name was Martha Parke Custis, and she was born in 1756 to her parents Daniel Parke Custis and Martha Dandridge. Her father, Daniel Parke Custis, died July 8, 1757. A year and half later, her mother, Martha, married a tall, dashing Virginia gentleman named George Washington.


Martha Parke Custis was better known as “Patsy.” After her mother married George Washington on January 6, 1759, Patsy became the stepdaughter of the famous Revolutionary War general and America’s first president. However, she died before her stepfather attained the rank of General.


Unfortunately, Patsy suffered from epileptic seizures from a young age. They continued to get worse throughout the 1760s. George Washington biographer, Ron Chernow, writes, “In 1768 George and Martha were returning from Belvoir with twelve-year old Patsy when she suffered her first full-scale seizure” (Chernow 153). Patsy’s epileptic seizures lasted until her untimely death in 1773.


Thus, it was this condition that brought Dr. Rumney into the lives of George and Martha Washington. Washington’s first record of spending time with Dr. William Rumney can be found in a diary entry dated January 3, 1768. In the entry, Washington simply noted, “At Home with Doctr. Rumney.”[i]


Dr. William Rumney Answers the Call


Dr. William Rumney was born and received his medical education in England. He came to colonial America as hostilities between the British and French Empires accelerated in a period from 1754-1763, which is known in America as the French and Indian War. During the French and Indian War, Dr. Rumney served as a surgeon in the British Army. After the war concluded in 1763, he moved to Alexandria, Virginia.


Dr. Rumney’s visits to Mount Vernon became frequent as he treated Patsy. Shortly after Washington recorded spending time at home with Rumney, the doctor returned to Mount Vernon and cared for Patsy on February 24, 1768. Founders Online describes the treatment that Dr. Rumney used from his own receipts. It states:


On this occasion Rumney prescribed 12 powders of unidentified composition, "a vial of Nervous Drops,” and a package of valerian, a drug that was thought to be useful in controlling epileptic spasms.[ii]

Dr. Rumney’s receipts record frequent use of “valerian” as the medicine. Valerian is a flower native to Europe and Asia, and it has historically been used for medicinal purposes. But, valerian was not the only medicine that Dr. Rumney used. On June 6, 1768, “While Rumney was at Mount Vernon, he gave Patsy Custis a large Julep, probably a syrupy, nonalcoholic drink intended to soothe her nerves.”[iii] 


Dr. Rumney’s treatment of Patsy continued into the early 1770s. Over that time period, he tried different treatments including “Best Bark” aka “Peruvian bark” which was from a plant in South America and was a popular medicine not only for epilepsy but also malaria.[iv] 


None of these treatments helped. In fact, the Washington’s sought second opinions, but no one else could figure out how to cure Patsy’s epilepsy. The condition worsened. Chernow writes, “During one frightful period from June 29 to September 22, 1770, Patsy fell to the floor in convulsions no fewer than twenty-six times” (Chernow 154).


Finally, on June 19, 1773, Patsy Custis suffered another epileptic seizure. Unfortunately, she died from this attack. Her death caused a lot of grief at Mount Vernon. However, the period of mourning was soon interrupted by national events. Colonial America was on the cusp of revolution, and the drumbeat of independence was about to sweep the Washington's into the fight to form a new nation.


From Doctor to Patriot


By the end of 1773, America was in the midst of a serious political crisis. The Boston Tea Party occurred on December 16, 1773. News of what happened reached Virginia by 1774. However, it was the British policy responses which caused an uproar in colonies like Virginia. The policies included an act known as the Coercive Acts. There was also a blockade of the port of Boston. All of these actions galvanized the colonies and created solidarity among them. Virginians like George Washington began to see the plight of Boston as their own. They understood that the British response to Boston was not an isolated incident.


Even though Patsy had passed away, Washington continued to see Dr. Rumney frequently although in more of a social capacity. Dr. Rumney stayed at Mount Vernon on July 11, 1774. This was in the heat of the political crisis involving British actions against Boston. In fact, Washington, George Mason, and citizens of Alexandria and Fairfax County were preparing for a meeting at the Fairfax Courthouse in Alexandria on July 18, 1774. As Dr. Rumney stayed at Mount Vernon on July 11, the discussions must have concerned matters of politics and the upcoming Alexandria meeting.


Finally, the day July 18, 1774 arrived and citizens of Alexandria went to the Market Square in the heart of Alexandria. A committee of 25 men assembled inside the courthouse adjacent to Market Square. On this day, the Fairfax Resolves were read and 24 of them passed the committee unanimously. Dr. William Rumney was one of the 25 members on the committee. George Washington presided over the meeting as Chairman.


George Mason was the principle author of the Fairfax Resolves. The resolves were a formal rebuke of British treatment of the American colonists as second class citizens. They outlined the fundamental principle of just governments being derived from the consent of the governed. They laid the groundwork for Mason’s next significant document the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which he authored in 1776. The Virginia Declaration of Rights passed before the Declaration of Independence, and included language that was incorporated by Thomas Jefferson into the Declaration of Independence. As a result, we can see a link from the Fairfax Resolves in 1774 to the Declaration of Independence two years later.


Mobilizing and Going to War


Two months after the passage of the Fairfax Resolves, George Washington left for Philadelphia and represented Virginia during the First Continental Congress. Meanwhile, back in Alexandria, an independent militia company known as the Fairfax County Militia was being formed. Dr. Rumney played an important role in raising the Fairfax Militia.


In fact, Dr. Rumney sent Washington a letter from Alexandria dated October 19, 1774. In the letter, he requests “that you will please to make some enquiries with regard to the furnishing the company with a pair of Colours, two Drums, two Fifes, and two Halberts, if they are to be had in Philadelphia; which may be sent round by the first Vessel for Alexandria.” The letter is co-signed with Robert Hanson Harrison, who was also a signer of the Fairfax Resolves and a future aide-de-camp to George Washington. Another signee of the letter was John Fitzgerald, who was also an aide-de-camp to George Washington although not a signer of the Fairfax Resolves.[v] 


The Fairfax County militia was formed on September 21, 1774 at the courthouse in Alexandria. George Washington served as commander of the militia until his selection as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army in June 1775. William Rumney became Colonel of the Fairfax Militia. Another signatory of the Fairfax Resolves was George Gilpin, who was a Major in the Fairfax Militia.


The Fairfax Militia was mostly responsible for the defenses of Virginia to include key cities like Alexandria and Colchester. However, the Fairfax Militia deployed in September 1777 to aid in the defense of Pennsylvania as the British advanced on Philadelphia.


Col. William Rumney wrote a letter to George Washington on September 10 in which he said, “By orders from the Governor of Virginia I have marched at the head of two hundred and forty seven men, and expect the addition of fifty three, by the officers who are left to bring them on. We shall march according to order to Frederic Town, where we shall wait your Excellency’s orders for our further proceedings.” [vi]   


Col. Rumney’s letter was sent one day before the Battle of Brandywine in Pennsylvania. George Washington’s reply came three days after that battle on September 14. Washington delivered the following message to his family doctor turned militia commander:

As Philadelphia is evidently the Object of General How’s expedition into Chesapeake Bay and he is now making a violent effort to possess himself of it, I think your Regiment should immediately proceed to Lancaster in Pennsylvania from whence their aid can be more easily had, than if they remain at Frederick Town.[vii]

One of the interesting things to note about Washington’s correspondence is that it was written by Robert Hanson Harrison, who had left the Fairfax Militia to serve as Washington’s aide-de-camp and then his military secretary.


The following year, Col. Rumney left the Fairfax Militia and joined the Continental Line as a surgeon. There is an important distinction to be made between the Continental “regulars” and the militia. Militia forces were raised by the states. They served as temporary troops and were activated in times of crisis or when their state was under attack. However, the Continentals were full-time military under congressional authority. The best way to think about it is the difference between full-time soldiers on active duty and part-time soldiers in either the reserves or National Guard. Col. Rumney was now entering full-time active duty service as part of the Continental Army.


Continental Army Surgeon


As surgeon in the Continental Army, much of Dr. Rumney’s service was in Alexandria. During the Revolutionary War, Alexandria played an important role as a place where soldiers were inoculated against smallpox. The inoculation policy began in early 1777. When the policy began, there was a Dr. Rickman overseeing the inoculations in Alexandria up until the end of 1777. However, Dr. Rickman was relieved of command by 1778. It appears that Dr. Rumney replaced Dr. Rickman around March 1778.[viii]   


Dr. Rumney stayed in Alexandria and served through the remainder of the war. There are not a lot of records related to this period. However, there is a letter that George Washington wrote to several men in Alexandria to include William Ramsay and Dr. William Rumney. The letter is dated November 19, 1781. It is a month after the British surrender at Yorktown, Virginia. Furthermore, it is two weeks after the death of George Washington’s stepson, John (“Jacky”) Parke Custis. 


In the letter, General Washington reminisces affectionately about spending time with his neighbors in Alexandria. He expresses a yearning to get back to peaceful days in the city among his friends. He also reflects on the recent victory at Yorktown and remarks that the “present prospect is pleasing.” Furthermore, the victory puts America closer to the goal of “Peace, liberty, & Independence.”


At the end of the letter, General Washington expresses thanks for the condolences that were shown over the death of his stepson Jackie. He concludes the letter by writing, “Amidst all the Vicissitudes of Time or Fortune be assured Gentlemen, that I shall ever regard with particular affection the Citizens & Inhabitants of Alexandria.”[ix]


Dr. Rumney's Death and Legacy


Dr. William Rumney died in 1783 as the Revolutionary War was ending. After his death, Washington’s long-time friend, Dr. James Craik, moved to Alexandria and became the Washington family physician as well as George Washington’s personal physician. As discussed in a previous article, Dr. Craik served with Washington during both the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War. They had also surveyed western lands together. Dr. Craik had lived in Port Tobacco, Maryland for many years. With the death of Dr. Rumney, Washington invited his friend to move to Alexandria to take Rumney's place.


Perhaps if Dr. Rumney had lived to the time of Washington's death, he may have also been an attending physician on Washington's deathbed. However, it was not meant to be. In fact, Dr. Elisha Cullen Dick also moved to Alexandria to practice medicine after Rumney's death. It appears as if the doctors passing created a need for more doctors to move to Alexandria and fill the void left by him.


Dr. William Rumney is an American Patriot. He was one of many Alexandrians that took an important step to break away from Great Britain and then fought to secure American independence. From signing the Fairfax Resolves to leading the Fairfax Militia, Dr. William Rumney sacrificed and served with honor.


As the 250th anniversary of the Fairfax Resolves approaches, we are proud to pay tribute to Dr. Rumney's legacy and service to America.



Dr. Craik House
Dr. Craik moved to Alexandria after Dr. Rumney's death. This is a photo of the Craik House on Duke Street.


Works Cited


[i] [Diary entry: 3 January 1768],” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/01-02-02-0003-0001-0003.

[ii] [Diary entry: 24 February 1768],” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/01-02-02-0003-0004-0024.

[iii] [Diary entry: 6 June 1768],” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/01-02-02-0003-0016-0006.

[iv] [Diary entry: 2 January 1771],” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/01-03-02-0001-0001-0002.

[v] To George Washington from Fairfax Independent Company, 19 October 1774,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-10-02-0113

[vi] “To George Washington from Patrick Henry, 5 September 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-11-02-0150. [

[vii] To George Washington from Patrick Henry, 5 September 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-11-02-0150.

[ix] From George Washington to William Ramsay, 19 November 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-07421


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