Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

Related Topics

Right Angle Club 2017
Dick Palmer and Bill Dorsey died this year. We will miss them.

Bill Dorsey: Death of a former President

William G. Dorsey

Philadelphia is a city of rivers, so it is not surprising that membership and presidency of the club sometimes has a nautical tint. This year, Bill Dorsey the President of the Delaware River Pilots Association and a former President of the Right Angle Club, died at the Quaker Retirement Community in Kennett Square called Kendall. He was a joyful presence in the club, and will be much missed.

The Right Angle Club is a dressy one, but not many members realize that dressiness is part of the tradition of the Delaware River Pilots Association. When the pilot transfers from the pilot boat in Lewes Delaware to climb the rope ladder into the incoming vessel, it has been traditional for centuries for him to be dressed for a state occasion. Regardless of the weather, it is traditional for the pilot to be piped aboard, dressed in formal clothes. We have a photo of Cap'n Bill, dressed in blue serge pinstripes, climbing up the side of a Labrador iron ore bulk cargo in Lewes, and quite obviously enjoying the experience.

Delaware River Pilots Association

The pilot association is an exclusive organization, often requiring hereditary status , as is often true of trade Unions which date back to medieval times. But they have to know their stuff, always anticipating the possibility of a court appearance with millions of dollars at stake. That is particularly true in port cities with a long estuary, which in Philadelphia's case is over a hundred miles long. Bill, like many officers and port wardens, was active in Delaware politics, and lived in one of a row of pilot mansions along the canal from Lewes to Rehoboth, Delaware. This combination of the raucous conviviality of a trade union politician, together with the utter seriousness of guiding a multi-million dollar ocean ship up a hundred miles of shoals, is approached somewhat by the conflicts of the pilots of ocean-spanning airline pilots with the reckless fearlessness required in their trade.

Bill and I were conceivably related. Or at least in the Eighteenth Century the chartmaker of the mouth of the Delaware was one Joshua Fisher, expelled from his profession when he refused to stop charting the Delaware out of fear that one of those charts would fall into the hands of the British Navy. Joshua then moved to the banks of the Schuylkill and his family disappeared when revolution was declared; no one has seriously investigated this vaporous history. Like so much folklore, more people would probably be happier if much of it were allowed to float away.

Originally published: Saturday, December 02, 2017; most-recently modified: Wednesday, April 10, 2019