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C. M. Harris

(b Tortola, British Virgin Islands, May 20, 1759; d Washington, DC, March 28, 1828).

American architect, Naturalist and civil servant of British birth. Born on a West Indian sugar plantation, to which he became an heir on the death of his father in 1760, he spent his youth among his English Quaker relatives in Lancaster. He was apprenticed to a ‘practical physician’ and apothecary in Ulverston, Lancs (now Cumbria), then studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh (1781–3), receiving the MD degree from the University of Aberdeen in 1784. He continued his medical studies and pursued his other interests of drawing and painting in London and Paris, and travelled on the continent and in Scotland, before returning to Tortola in May 1785. In the autumn of the following year he emigrated to the USA.

Thornton practised medicine briefly in Philadelphia but found the fees low and the nature of physicians’ work there ‘laborious’ and ‘disgusting’. His scientific accomplishments, however, gained him election to the American Philosophical Society, and his visionary turn of mind attracted him to causes as varied as the anti-slavery campaign and John Fitch’s experimental steamboats, to which he contributed designs as well as capital. His inclination for design led him to enter the competition for the hall of the Library Company of Philadelphia, and his designs were accepted with slight alterations in ...