Health Sciences Library Discovers Letter from Signer of the U.S. Constitution

detail of the letter

It's not often that an archives uncovers a previously unknown letter from a Signer of the Constitution, but that's what happened recently here at Archives & Special Collections.

While editing the calendar to the department's "College of Physicians and Surgeons Manuscript Collection" -- a 9 box miscellany of early College records, small manuscript collections, and even reference librarians' correspondence from the 1960s -- we came across a letter from from Colonel William Few (1748-1828), Revolutionary War officer, member of the Continental Congress, and Signer of the Constitution for Georgia.

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The letter dated July 14, 1817 is addressed to faculty member Dr. William MacNeven, himself famous for being an exiled Irish patriot and early U.S. chemistry professor.  In it, Few complains that the expansion of the College’s building, located on Barclay St. near City Hall, threatened to obstruct his light – even then, evidently, a matter of concern to New Yorkers.

Few writes that he was “seriously apprehensive” that the expansion would block the light “which I have long enjoyd [sic] and find so necessary for my comfort & convenience…Would it not be better to contract your plan a little than to greatly injure a Neighbour?”

He goes on to warn that “I have consulted a lawyer on the subject” who assures him “the law will redress.”  Furthermore, Few cautions the College “that if the practice of dissecting human bodies is carried on in such a manner as to be offensive to the Neighbourhood the Courts will take cognizance of it.”  Though the minutes of the College’s Board of Trustees record the receipt of Few’s letter, no response appears to have survived. The building project was finished that year and P&S remained on Barclay St. until 1837 when it moved "uptown" to Crosby St.

Few was born in Maryland, moved to North Carolina as a child, and eventually settled in Georgia where he rose to be colonel in the state’s militia and one of its representatives in the Continental Congress.  He was among Georgia’s four delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention and was one of only two of those delegates to actually sign the document.  After the ratification of the Constitution, Few was chosen as one of Georgia’s first two U.S. senators.

Few moved to New York City in 1799 at the urging of his wife, a native New Yorker.  He spent the rest of life in New York serving at various times as a state assemblyman, city alderman, and state inspector of prisoners.  He was also an early president of what is now CitiBank.

Because Few signed his letter “W. Few” rather than with his full name, the writer’s identity wasn’t realized when the collection was cataloged in the 1960s. Today, a quick Google search verified the author in about ten minutes.  Not many American medical schools are old enough to have letters from Founding Fathers in their archives;  we're proud to have this one, even if shows that town-gown relations were often testy even 200 years ago.