William Thornton, the first and longest serving head of the office, was born on May 20, 1759, in the British Virgin Islands. He was sent to England at the age of five for education. His many interests included architecture, painting, botany, and mechanics. He received a medical degree from the University of Aberdeen and practiced briefly as a physician. 

He travelled widely in Europe and met Benjamin Franklin in Paris. In 1785 he returned to the family sugar plantation on the island of Tortola. The next year he moved to Philadelphia, which was an early seat of the U.S. government, and became a U.S. citizen.

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