Dr. Thomas Sewall

Dr. Thomas Sewall was born on April 16, 1786 in Hallowell, Maine, the son of Thomas Sewall and Priscilla Coney Sewall and graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1812.

Thomas Sewall was a temperance activist whose major contribution to the temperance movement was his eight graphic drawings of what he called "alcohol diseased stomachs." Colored lithographs of these were made and widely distributed to promote abstinence, the temperance movement, and alcoholic beverage prohibition. One temperance leader sent a copy of Dr. Sewall's lithographs, to every household in the state of New York and also sent 150,000 copies to poorhouses, prisons, hospitals and schools

Dr. Thomas Sewall believed that alcohol was responsible for most human illnesses, including dyspepsia, jaundice, emaciation, corpulence, rheumatism, gout, palpation, lethargy, apoplexy, melancholy, madness, and premature old age.

As a young physician in Massachusetts, Dr. Sewall was arrested, charged, and found guilty in 1819 of multiple counts of the crime of grave robbing. Two of the eight corpses were those of his own former patients. The story of the crimes is found in "A most daring and sacrilegious robbery" The extraordinary story of body snatching at Chebacco Parish in Ipswich, Massachusetts by Christopher Benedetto. New England Ancestors, 2005 (Spring), 6 (2), p. 31.

Forced to leave the state because of his conviction, Prof. Sewall moved to the nation's capital to re-establish his career. In 1821 he was appointed Professor of Anatomy in the National Medical College, and retained a chair in it until his death. In 1825 he was a founding faculty member of the medical department at Columbian College (which later became George Washington University), where he became professor of anatomy.

Incredibly, the theme of Dr. Sewall's commencement address to the graduating medical students at Columbian College in 1827 was the importance of good moral conduct. It contained no mention of the importance of not body snatching or robbing graves.

Dr. Thomas Sewall died of tuberculosis on April 10, 1845 in Washington, D.C., at the age of 58.

Like most other temperance advocates at the time, Dr. Sewall called for voluntary abstention from drinking distilled spirits but not from beer and wine. This reflected the myth that distilled spirits were more alcoholic than the other beverages. However, standard drinks of beer, wine and distilled spirits all contain an equivalent amount of alcohol -- 0.6 ounces per drink.

A standard alcoholic drink is:

  • A 12-ounce can or bottle of regular beer
  • A 5-ounce glass of dinner wine
  • A shot (one and one-half ounces) of 80 proof liquor or spirits such as vodka, tequila, or rum either straight or in a mixed drink.

Standard drinks all all the same to a breathalyzer.

With the passage of time temperance groups increasingly pressed for abstention from all alcoholic beverages, including beer and wine, and then pushed for the mandatory prohibition of alcohol rather than for voluntary abstinence.

The resulting National Prohibition (1920-1933) proved to be a disastrous failure that created numerous social problems and was overwhelmingly repudiated by 74% of American voters.

Surprisingly, many people and organizations today support neo-prohibition ideas and strongly defend the many vestiges of Prohibition that still continue to exist.

References and Resources on Dr. Thomas Sewall:

  • Benedetto, Christopher. "A most daring and sacrilegious robbery." The extraordinary story of body snatching at Chebacco Parish in Ipswich, Massachusetts. New England Ancestors, 2005 (Spring), 6(2), 31. The story of Dr. Thomas Sewall's crimes in connection with grave robbing.
  • Croggon, James. In old Washington (Dr. Thomas Sewall). The Evening Star, July 1, 1909, pt. 2, p. 1. http://www.bytesofhistory.com/DCHistory/Collections/Croggon/Croggon_19100702.html.
  • Death Of Thomas Sewall - (American Anatomist). National Intelligencer, April 12, 1845, p. 1.
  • Dr. Thomas Sewall. Sewall Genealogy. http://www.sewellgenealogy.com/p425.htm
  • Dr. Thomas Sewall and the Medical Department of Columbian College. In Dunglison, Robley. The American Medical Intelligencer, Volume 3, p. 211.
  • Commencement address of Dr. Thomas Sewall, 1827. http://encyclopedia.gwu.edu/gwencyclopedia/index.php?title=Commencements:_Address_of_Thomas_Sewall%2C_1827
  • Kayser, Elmer L. A Medical Center: The Institutional Development of Medical Education in George Washington University. Washington, DC: George Washington University Press, 1973. Details Dr. Thomas Sewall's important role in developing medical education at Columbian College, which later became George Washington University.
  • Letter of the Emperor of China to Dr. Thomas Sewall, on the merits of Phrenology. Combe, George. Notes on the United States of America During a Phrenology Visit. Vol. II. Philadelphia, PA: Corey & Hart, 1841. Appendix, pp. 377-378.
  • Sewall, Thomas. Testimony of Dr. Thomas Sewall. In Dorchester, Daniel. Latest Drink Sophistries versus Total Abstinence. W. Wood, printer, 1883.
  • Sewall, Thomas. An address delivered before the Washington City Temperance Society, November 15, 1830. Washington, DC: Washington City Temperance Society, 1830.

Filed Under: Biography