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Bizarre History of Cape May -- Early physicians left their mark on Cape May County

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Imagine a time when there were no heart pills, certainly no Medicare, and when the only anesthesia was a good slug of whiskey while people held you down and extracted part of your body.

Welcome to medicine circa 1800s and 1900s in Cape Island before and soon after it was renamed Cape May. Obviously times were not that scientific then, and some today may argue in absence of tangible evidence that then was better than now, although today’s life longevity proves otherwise.

Whatever the case, there were some good doctors then and there were impersonators who were called “quacks.” Some advertised a cure labeled “The China Snake Stone” which was supposed remove the venom from mad dogs, snakes and other poisonous creatures. You could purchase this questionable penicillin of the past for $2,000.

It is no wonder that one legitimate physician was quoted then as saying “Quacks abound like locusts in Egypt and to recommend themselves as a fair practice.”

Unlike today, the medical profession was not regulated, no one was tested, licensed or sworn in. All you had to do is look like a doctor, carry a black bag and say you were one and that admitted you to the special but very unofficial fraternity of medicine.

That is not to say, however, that there were not some bonafide doctors in this area during those early days, some coming from distant points, others from Philadelphia where they received their medical education. Their credentials varied, some acquiring their knowledge by merely reading medical books, others by associating with experienced doctors, and still others bringing their talents to these shores from Europe where the practice of medicine was far advanced from that of the young United States.

Here are some examples of some of the accredited doctors who serviced Cape May County during its first century or so. In many cases they also devoted much of their time to civic activities too.

John Ludlam Smith, born in Goshen in 1790, studied medicine at Pennsylvania and New York hospitals, named by the New Jersey Medical Society to organize a District Medical Society in Cape May County, served in the War of 1812, died at the age of 34. HisHHh father, Abijah, was the county’s first county clerk.

Samuel Sumner Marcy, born in Wilmington, Conn. in 1798, graduated from the medical college at Yale in 1820, migrated to Dennisville where he practiced medicine, then moved to Cold Spring and later to Cape May where he opened the first drug store in the county. In 1825 he was commissioned surgeon’s mate of the Cape May militia, became a postmaster in 1853, town recorder in 1861, and was elected alderman of Cape May in 1858. He died in 1877 in Cape May.

Virgil M.D. Marcy, son of Samuel. Born in Cold Sping in 1823, he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree at Yale, then a medical degree at the University of Maryland in 1846 after which he practiced in Virginia for three years before joining his father’s practice in Cape May. When his father retired in 1876, the son entered the druggist business as well as continuing as a doctor. He died in 1904.

Virgil Maro D. Marcy II, grandson of Virgil M. D. Marcy, born in Cold Spring in 1878, graduated from the medical department of the University of Pennsylvania in 1900, moved to Cape May where he practiced and was named official physician of the Coast Guard base and was commissioned captain during the First World War. He died of double pneumonia when he was 47, the same fate that met his only son a few days later.

Anna Maria Hand, born in Cape May Court House in 1849, she became the first woman to practice medicine in Cape May County. A graduate of the Women’s Medical College in Philadelphia, she first practiced at the Maternity Hospital and Nurses School in Philadelphia before she relocated in Cape May. She died in 1921 at the age of 72.

James Madison Slaughter who despite his last name was a highly respected doctor in the Cape May area for 67 years. Born in Philadelphia in 1834, he graduated from Franklin and Marshall College, then earned his medical degree at the University of Maryland in 1855. He practiced in Maryland for two years, then in Philadelphia for three more years before moving to Rio Grande, where he practiced for 55 years before retiring and moving to Wildwood where he operated a dug store until a year before his death in 1923 at the age of 89.

James S. Kennedy, born in 1807, came to Cape May from Philadelphia as a young man. He opened a drug store and graduated from the Philadelphia College of Medicine in 1843, doubling as a doctor and druggist which appeared to be dual careers for many in medicine at that time. Kennedy also served as a city councilman, alderman, assessor and a member of the Board of Freeholders for two years. He died in 1876 at the age of 69.

Walter Hand Phillips, born in 1869, was a graduate of Hahnemann Medical College in Philadelphia, and established a practice in Cape May where he specialized in the treatment of children’s diseases. He died unexpectedly in 1929 at the age of 60 in San Francisco while he was touring the nation on vacation.

Westley Roger Wales, born in 1869 and an 1891 graduate of Jefferson Medical College, moved from Atlantic County to Cape May where he purchased the drug business of the Kennedy estate and continued to practice medicine. He served two years as a freeholder and died in 1914 at the age of 45.

Maurice Beesley, in addition to being a physician, is credited as having been the county’s first historian. Born in Dennisville in 1804 he was to go on to earn his medical degree at the University of Pennsylvania and to practice medicine as a country doctor on horseback and in two-wheeled horse drawn vehicles throughout the county for more than half a century. He wrote his first history of the county in 1857 and was an organizer of the State Historical Society, for which he served as a board member for several years. He also served in the state legislature for two years, starting in 1840.

James Mecray, born in Cape May in 1842, he attended local schools, then the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and the University of Pennsylvania where he earned dual accreditations. He was an assistant surgeon in the Navy during the Civil War and following that he started a drug store partnership with Dr. Virgil M. D. Marcy in Cape May. He also served as president of the city council for six years and city treasurer for two years. He died in 1916 at the age of 74.

(Some of the information in this article was researched in the publication “The Cape May County Magazine of History and Genealogy” at the reference department of the Cape May County Library.)

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