The year was 1705. Richard Smith, armed with a license to practice “Cirurgery and Phisiq,” ventured into Cape May County to become its first resident physician. But the idea of having a doctor in the neighborhood didn’t seem to catch on right away, because 115 years later someone wrote: “They (the people of Cape May County) have known little practicality of these necessary evils of social life, the physician and the lawyer.” But sometime later, physicians, if not lawyers, became more accepted.
It wasn’t until 1883 that the Cape May County Medical Society was organized. One of its charter members was Dr. Eugene Way. Eugene, and later his son, Clarence, eventually would become the most prominent physicians in Sea Isle City. Together, they served the city for over half-a-century.
Eugene Way was born in Kirkwood, New York, in 1857. His father, Dr. Palmer Martin Way, was a prominent physician in Kirkwood and later in New York City. He spent three years in Jamaica as a Methodist Episcopal missionary. In 1867, Palmer moved his wife and seven children to an estate (which he turned into a farm) in Cape May County. There he practiced medicine, directed the activities of his farm, and established a large store in South Seaville as an outlet for his products. Along with Eugene, he was a charter member of the county medical society. Dr. Palmer Way was a busy man.
Eugene’s mother, Ann Amelia Wilson Way was born in Mays Landing and moved to Tuckahoe at an early age. She had a nationally famous father, James Wilson, who was the first person in the United States to produce a revolving globe map of the world. (Wilson was a blacksmith by trade.)
Eugene (or “Gene” as his friends called him) may have spent his formative years on a farm, but that wasn’t to be his future. Both he and his brother, Julius, decided to follow their father into the medical profession. Eugene graduated from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia in 1879, married Mary Adams, whose father had been county sheriff, and set up shop in Dennisville — all at the age of 22. Eugene was destined to practice medicine in Cape May County for the next 57 years.
Eugene as Physician
Dr. Eugene Way’s office may have been in Dennisville, but he traveled throughout the northern part of the county to tend to those who had no other access to medical services. It was said that people needing a doctor would line the streets, especially in Woodbine, and hail him with lanterns as he passed — and that he never refused a call. In the early days, patients would pay him with cash, with potatoes, with apples — or sometimes with nothing at all. It’s no wonder they called him their “beloved country doctor.”
Way opened an office in Sea Isle in the early 1900s, and came to town by horse-and-buggy, train and later by car. He was one of Sea Isle’s early commuters. During his weekly visits, he would stay until all his patients had been treated. Then he would dine and sometimes stay over at Cronecker’s Hotel on Landis Avenue.
But Way was not just a country doctor. Among other achievements, his medical resume includes the following:
• He was a scientist. As president of the Cape May County Medical Society in 1896, he presented the first comprehensive paper on the subject of “Fish-Slime Disease” as it affects “the hardy fishermen who follow the sea for a livelihood.” The article can be googled.
• He was a valued consultant. Way’s brother, Dr. Julius Way, had become official Cape May County physician. Eugene Way often traveled to Court House to consult on Julius Way’s most serious cases.
• He was an administrator. Eugene Way held the post of medical director of The Woodbine Colony for Feeble Minded Males, which had more than 200 residents at the time (1927).
• He was a volunteer. During the deadly influenza epidemic of 1917-18, Eugene Way worked 18-hour days to relieve the suffering of anyone who needed him. The Cape May County Times called his efforts heroic.
After commuting for several years back and forth across the county, Eugene and Mary Way decided to retire to the place where they had summered for the past ten years — Sea Isle City. The year was 1924, and they moved into a home on the northeast corner of Landis Avenue and 46th Street. But Eugene Way found that the people still needed him, so instead of retiring, he established an office on the ground floor which he shared with his son, Clarence.
When he wasn’t busy doctoring, one of Eugene Way’s favorite pastimes was writing poetry. His feelings about his new home are expressed in this excerpt from one of his pieces:
"Sea Isle City is the gem of the Atlantic Coast,
"To this all must agree, for it is not an idle boast
"That it was here that nature bestowed her sweetest smile,
"Upon this bit of paradise that has been named Sea Isle."
The Rotary comes to Sea Isle
Sea Isle City was granted a Rotary Club charter on Feb. 26, 1926. With the motto of “Service Above Self,” the Rotary had to appeal to Eugene Way. So, as if he didn’t have enough to do, he signed up as a charter member and became the club’s first secretary.
Besides being secretary, Way held the positions of club president and treasurer. He was Sea Isle’s most active member. He was called “the greatest Rotarian I’ve met” by the superintendent of Atlantic City schools, and “a soldier of medicine” by a fellow Rotarian. He would sign his letters “Rotarily yours.” He initiated the Rotary Bulletin, which was so well received that he was asked to deliver a paper at the Rotary International Convention titled “Preparation of Your Club Bulletin.” In 1929, each club was asked to list its weaknesses.
As secretary, Eugene responded: “We are only human.” And he continued to write poems:
"You are welcome to our city where flowers rotarial bloom,
"You are welcome to our castle where guns for service boom,
"You are welcome to our sanctum where in Rotary’s name we meet,
"You are welcome to our councils, You are welcome to a seat."
Wrapping Up Shop
In 1936, after 57 years of service to the citizens of Cape May County, Way decided it was finally time to retire. The little man with the big heart said he “wanted to take a vacation.” He claimed never to have missed a day of work in all that time. (He even treated a patient on the night he retired.) When he finally closed up shop in September, he was the oldest practicing physician in the county.
Eugene and Mary Way relocated to the community of Marven Gardens in Margate. Then, in a sad twist of irony, just a week after they started their new life, Way came down with appendicitis. After his doctors performed an operation, they concluded that the appendix couldn’t be removed because of his age (79). He seemed to be doing well and was sent home. But he never recovered. Way passed away two short months after beginning his longed-for vacation.
A few weeks before he died, Way had been given a solid silver loving cup in appreciation by his friends, many of whose families he had treated through three generations. An undated article from the Daily Sentinel Ledger summed up the impact Way had on the lives he touched. Here are some excerpts:
"Few men have lived more fully than Eugene Way, Cape May County’s 'old country doctor.' He was unselfishly devoted not only to his profession but to the many people he served during his half century of practice."
"No one, coming face to face with Dr. Way’s sunny countenance, could help but feel better. There was no affectation about the little country doctor. His laugh was spontaneous and his handclasp warm."
"He brought babies into the world, piloted them safely through their childhood ills, watched them grow up and marry, and in turn ushered in their children – and grandchildren."
"In hundreds of homes today there is sadness. For the friend and counselor of those homes has gone. And his place can never be filled again."
When Eugene Way retired, his son Clarence took over the practice. Dr. Clarence Wilton Way, called “C.W.” by both acquaintances and himself, had begun his medical practice in Dennisville with his father in 1909, but began listing his home as Sea Isle City in 1913. He went on to serve Sea Isle as official city doctor, school doctor, resident physician of the Sea Isle Hospital, and the go-to doctor to treat beach casualties at the Women’s Civic Club on the boardwalk. He was the first president of the Sea Isle Rotary Club. C.W. Way proudly carried the flag in Sea Isle’s patriotic parades. He served as an Army major during both world wars and somehow found time to raise champion show dogs. One of his favorites was a cocker spaniel named “Medico Way.” He also edited a journal called The Medical Way — C.W. had a way with words.
Much of the information presented here was provided from a scrapbook found in G. Dan Libro’s garage and donated to the museum by his children. To learn more about the physicians who served Sea Isle through the years, and to discover more about our town’s history, please visit the Sea Isle City Historical Museum at 48th Street and Central Avenue. Hours are 10-3 Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. Access our website at seaislemuseum.com, or call 609-263-2992.