Dr. William Thornton

Dr. William Thornton; Renaissance Man

Inventor, painter, physician, and architect of the United States Capitol, Dr. William Thornton was born on May 20, 1759 in the British Virgin Islands. Perhaps best known in his own time as the first Superintendent of the United States Patent Office, Thornton was brought up learning the tenants and traditions of the Quaker community. It is perhaps in these lessons Thornton developed his ideals of anti-slavery and abolitionism with which he had interested James Madison. Thornton was a peer of the likes of Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams and was called upon to venture to Mount Vernon in the 1820s to treat George Washington, arriving shortly after his death.</p?

The Life and Times of Dr. William Thornton

Leaving Jost Van Dyke, his birthplace in the British Virgin Islands in the West Indies, at the young age of five to be educated in England, Thornton was apprenticed for four years, at the age of 18, to an apothecary and practical physician. He went on to receive his degree in medicine from the University of Aberdeen in Aberdeen, Scotland. After moving to the U.S. and becoming a citizen in 1788, President Washington accepted his design for the Capitol building attaining Thornton the sobriquet of First architect.

Thornton moved to Washington D.C. in 1794 where he was appointed a city commissioner job by President Washington. President Jefferson appointed Thornton Superintendent of the United States Patent Office in 1802, during which time he would not only design some of the most notable domestic buildings in the city but would also convince British forces not to burn the building, during the infamous burning of Washington in 1814, due to its importance of mankind. Thornton would retain this position until his death in 1829.

William Thornton Remembered in the Virgin Islands

Dr. William Thornton is still remembered in the British Virgin Islands where he was born. The Thornton plantation, where William Thornton called home until the age of five, still welcomes visitors interested in the Renaissance man’s life. The room where Thornton prepared the blueprints for the capitol is on display along with a variety of other exhibits reflective of the life of the renowned polymath. The Plantation stands as a tribute not only to William Thornton’s legacy in the British Virgin Islands but his lasting contributions to the world at large.


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