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Dr. D. Peixotto And The 1832 New York Cholera Epidemic

Cholera was officially recognized to be of epidemic proportions in New York City on June 26, 1832. The epidemic was at its peak in July and 3,515 out of a population of about 250,000 died. (The equivalent death toll in today’s city of eight million would exceed 100,000.) Sadly, in 1832 there were no effective treatments available for those who contracted this disease.

The relatively small Jewish community of New York was also affected by this disease. Since Tisha B’Av occurred on August 5that year, there was concern that fasting would negatively affect the health of the Jewish community. This led Dr. Daniel Levy Madura Peixotto to issue the following letter[i] which was distributed throughout the Jewish community.

 

I deem it my duty to call your attention to the propriety of so modifying the observance of the Fast, which takes place on the ninth of Ab, (Sunday next,) as not to expose those who strictly keep it, to incur the pestilential disease which has been, and is still devastating our once healthy metropolis. It has been my lot every year to be called upon to render professional assistance to one or more persons suffering under more or less severe attacks of disease, from the effects of abstinence long continued, aggravated by the operations of intense heat incident to the season. If such causes operate in healthful seasons, what may not be apprehended from them in a season like the present?

The benign spirit of our laws, if I am not much mistaken, authorises a latitude in the construction of its letter, whenever the lives, healths, or important interests of the community require it. There never was a more imperative necessity for such liberal interpretation, than exists at the present moment. It is a notorious fact that the Cholera first broke out in Smyrna among our people after their strict observance of a Fast Day.

Allow me then to suggest, that on the present occasion a slight meal, say of coffee, tea, or cocoa, with dry toast, be allowed at early rising, and a few draughts through the day of toast-water [water infused with a slice of toast], or tea. This will obviate any mischief which might otherwise result from severe abstemiousness in the first place; or secondly, from too sudden repletion occasionally indulged on the breaking of the fast.

 

Dr. Daniel L. M. Peixotto was born on July 18, 1800 in Amsterdam. His father, Moses Levy Maduro Peixotto, served as chazzan of Congregation Shearith Israel from 1816 to 1828. He refused to accept any compensation for his service, insisting that the salary and emoluments of the office go to the family of his predecessor, Gershom Mendes Seixas.

Daniel received some education in Curaçao under the direction of Professor Strebeck and came with his father to New York in 1807. He must have been a child prodigy of sorts, because he graduated from Columbia College at the age of sixteen and earned the degree of Doctor of Medicine in 1819. Later in 1825 he earned an M.A. from Columbia.

“Shortly after Peixotto’s graduation, he went to the West Indies where he remained for a few years, and then returned to New York to practice his profession. He was not only active in the practice of his profession, but interested in all movements tending to its advancement and development, and contributed largely thereto.”[ii]

In 1822 Dr. Peixotto published the article “Observations on the Climate and Diseases of the Island of Curacao” in The New York Medical and Physical Journal, the first regular quarterly medical journal ever undertaken in the English language. The journal had been founded in the same year. He eventually became one of the journal’s editors. He was a frequent contributor to other periodicals and newspapers of the day. Later on he edited “The True American,” advocating the election of General Andrew Jackson, and he was also connected with the New York Mirror.

“Peixotto married Rachel Seixas, [the daughter of Benjamin Seixas], in 1823. They had 8 children: Judith, Zipporah, Sarah, Moses Levy Maduro II, Rebecca, Benjamin Franklin, Raphael, and Miriam.”[iii]

Tragically Dr. Peixotto, who was one of the foremost physicians of his day, died at the young age of 43.

* * * * *

Dr. Peixotto’s eldest daughter, Judith Salzedo Peixotto (1823-1881), was a woman whose pioneering achievements during the nineteenth century are worth noting, as can be seen in the following entry from the Jewish Women’s Archive (jwa.org):

About the Author: Dr. Yitzchok Levine served as a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey before retiring in 2008. He now teaches as an adjunct at Stevens. Glimpses Into American Jewish History appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at llevine@stevens.edu.


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