By Ronald J. Taddeo, M.D.
Westel Willoughby, Jr. was the third child born to Westel and Ruth Arnold Willoughby on March 31, 1769 in Goshen Township, Connecticut. Although not much has been learned about this early life in Goshen, it is known that the Willoughby family, with five sons and three daughters moved to Stockbridge, Massachusetts at some point. It is also known that Westel moved again with his parents and siblings to Herkimer County, New York, arriving there in 1792 when he was 23 years of age. The Willoughby family’s goal was to seek their fortunes in the growing communities around the Mohawk River in upstate New York where they settled in the tiny village of Norway.
How Westel Willoughby came to be a physician is not recorded anywhere. Research of student lists in then existing medical schools does not reveal his name and there is no record of his having served a preceptorship with an established physician in Goshen. However, very soon after his arrival in Norway, New York he was referred to as Dr. Willoughby and was engaged in the practice of medicine, supplementing his income by running a small general store.
By 1806, Dr. Willoughby’s successful medical career afforded his move to the nearby, thriving mill town of Newport, NY on the West Canada Creek (originally called the Kuyahoora River!), where he built a fine residence between Main Street and the water. The house was later moved to higher ground and still exits on North Street in Newport. It stands next to the historic Yale House, where once lived Linus Yale, the founder of the Yale Lock Company.
After serving as a militia physician at Sackets Harbor, NY in the War of 1812, Dr. Willoughby attended a course of medical lectures at Columbia University in New York City where, during the same year, he was awarded the degree of Doctor of Medicine. Amazingly, before Westel could officially add M.D. to his name, he pursued several intellectual paths to promote medical education in the state of New York. To begin with, in 1806, Dr. Willoughby led the effort to form the Herkimer County Medical Society, to which he was elected President, an office he held for the next thirty years except for two years. In 1807 Dr. Willoughby helped organize the New York State Medical Society. Additionally, Dr. Willoughby became a founder, OB-GYN professor and then President of the Fairfield Medical College, an institution he served from 1812 until 1839. Somehow, he also found time to serve as a judge in the Court of Common Pleas for sixteen years, beginning in 1805, and was elected to the U.S. Congress in 1814 where he represented Herkimer and Madison Counties!
Throughout his illustrious career, Dr. Willoughby was married, although there exist several questions relating to his marital history dating back to his arrival in New York in 1792. It seems the good doctor was already married when showed up in Herkimer County but neglected to publicize that fact. The record shows that Westel Willoughby married Miss Rhoda Judd on November 11, 1790 while they both lived in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Apparently the young bride refused to move to the “wilds of New York State” when the Willoughbys relocated westward, so Westel went on without her. No record of divorce was ever found for this ill-fated union.
When Westel married Sally Cole in 1792 in Norway, the townspeople (at least some of them) believed she was his first wife. After a long, happy marriage of 46 years, Sally died in December 1838 of tuberculosis. She was the “sick wife” whom Westel had described in his refusal of the Willoughby Medical College presidency offer. The following year in 1839, Westel married his third wife, Maria, also referred to as “Maria B.” or the “Widow St. John”. How these relationships finally played out will be discussed in the next report.
Ronald J. Taddeo, MD is a retired plastic and reconstructive surgeon with an insatiable interest in history. Dr. Taddeo and his wife Sandy are members of most of the historical societies in northeast Ohio. For over twenty years, Dr. Taddeo has served as historian for the Lake County Medical Society, historian for the Ohio Valley Society of Plastic Surgeons and is a member of the President’s Advisory Committee of the Lake County Historical Society. Additionally, Dr. Taddeo is president of the Willoughby Area Welcome Center in downtown Willoughby where historical exhibits tell the fascinating stories of our Lake County communities.