Home is Where the Health Is

Cape Cod Life  /  Annual Life 2021 /

Writer: Chris White

Cape Cod Healthcare: from dire beginnings to an essential present.

On October 2nd, 1920, Cape Cod Hospital first opened its doors to the public. According to hospital archives, “Members of the board greeted visitors; nurses showed them around. A newspaper account perhaps expressed the feelings of many: ‘In the clear sunlight of Saturday afternoon, looking out from the sun parlor on the south over beautiful gardens with the blue water of the bay in the distance, it was almost easy to envy the convalescent patient who may have the privilege of sitting there for hours and enjoying the view. Surely if fresh air and sunshine are healing properties, the patients at Cape Cod Hospital should receive a new lease on life.’” Miss Nellie E. Woodworth served as the hospital’s first superintendent, and she opened the hospital on October 4th with 14 beds and two cribs in a converted three-story wooden home. The three original nurses—Mary E. Woodworth, Grace MacKenzie, and Lillian Hudnut—lived on the third floor. “On Monday, October 4th, William O. Crocker of Osterville was admitted as the hospital’s first patient,” the archives note. “Badly crippled from rheumatism, Mr. Crocker was a patient of Dr. W. D. Kinney. The hospital was officially open.” Mr. Crocker’s admission also marked the official start of Cape Cod Healthcare, which reached the milestone of a century of service to the community in 2020. The hospital remains the centerpiece of the organization today. It has grown along with the population, evolved to changing times, and endured, even as the city of Hyannis has built up around its once rural setting. 

Cape Cod Hospital arose from necessity, for Boston was simply too far away for the survival of a patient in critical condition. Trustee Joshua Nickerson, who joined the board in 1923 and served for 50 years, recalls the conditions that led to the hospital’s founding. In a 1987 article for the Pops By The Sea fundraiser, Nickerson documented two childhood memories that inspired his interest in healthcare. The first involved a brakeman named Billy Wire who worked the train between Boston and Chatham. Wire was a childhood hero of Nickerson’s because he allowed the boy to ride up in the cab of the locomotive and to operate the handle that reversed the train’s direction at the turnstile. Nickerson wrote, “One day Billy Wire fell in between two moving cars, and his legs were crushed by the wheels. A special train was rigged to get him to Boston so he could get proper medical care. He died in Middleboro.” The trustee’s second memory has a happier ending, as he recalls the time his mother’s sister Bessie fell ill with an abdominal tumor. A doctor and nurse came down from Boston and removed the cancer by operating on the dining room table in Nickerson’s father’s house. “They went back on the afternoon train,” says Nickerson, “and my aunt Bessie lived for another 50 years. That’s what it was like before we got a hospital.”

Fortunately for future generations of Cape Codders, the conventions of health care began to change on April 2, 1919, when a Centerville banker named Charles Ayling put forth the proposal for a hospital. Hospital archives indicate that his inspiration also involved train travel to Boston. Following a weekend on the Cape in 1918, Ayling was returning to the city for work, relaxing in the “smoker,” when he witnessed a grotesque and piteous situation. Two men were suffering in obvious pain in the baggage car, their arms and legs wrapped in heavy, bloody bandages. When Ayling inquired, the conductor explained that they were two Belgian sailors whose ship had run aground off the Cape. It was February, the seas were rough, and when they clung to the mast for survival, their hands had frozen in place. Their feet had also frozen to the deck. Amputation and the rapid application of bandaging was the only way for rescuers to bring them to shore alive. By the time they reached land, they both had surely lost vast amounts of blood. The story shocked Ayling because he couldn’t believe that the closest available hospital for the sailors was all the way up in Boston; what bothered him even more was the fact that the conductor and most other passengers seemed to take the situation for granted. This was the moment that he decided that Cape Cod needed its own hospital. 14 months later, he would present his proposal to the Hyannis Board of Trade. 

While Charles Ayling’s personal experience may have been an accelerant to the creation of the Cape Cod Hospital, other issues in 1918 had also inflamed public opinion in favor of such an endeavor. According to a report published by the hospital in 1970, titled “The Last Five Decades”, two global concerns factored heavily, as well. The first was WWI and the concern that fighting could spill onto the mainland of the USA. Just as the Pilgrims had bumped into Provincetown prior to settling in Plymouth, U-boats had made Cape Cod an early target. The report notes that “In 1918, a German submarine surfaced near Orleans and shelled some barges, sinking one and setting another afire. There were no casualties, but people couldn’t help thinking about what might have happened.” And in addition to the spectre of war on local waters and sands, a global pandemic was raging. According to the CDC, the Spanish Flu was an H1N1 virus that had started in birds; by the time it had run its course, it had infected about one-third of the world’s population and killed at least 50 million people. In the US alone, over 675,000 souls perished. While there was no cure or vaccine at the time, a general sentiment amongst Cape residents held that a local hospital could have prevented a significant number of deaths. Thus, the Hyannis Board of Trade readily accepted Ayling’s proposal; minutes from the meeting read, “It seemed to be the conclusion of those present that Cape Cod has reached the point where a hospital is needed.” By April 5, 1919, a seven-person committee had formed, including two doctors, and after a public hearing on May 1, a committee to incorporate was formed with representatives from the towns and villages of Hyannis, Osterville, Sandwich, Sagamore, Buzzards Bay, Falmouth, Yarmouth, Harwich, Chatham, Brewster, and Orleans. 

Enthusiasm for the Cape Cod Hospital was high, and the project progressed fairly rapidly. By the end of April, 1920, Charles Ayling and other organizers had identified a prime location — the summer home of Dr. E. F. Gleason. Formerly known as the Watts Estate and as the Hyannis Village Seminary, the large house stood atop a hill with views of Lewis Bay and met the criteria of the search committee, which had concluded the site should, “Be reasonably accessible for the Cape’s 26,000 year-around residents, isolated enough to offer its patients peace and quiet, spacious enough to allow expansion later on.” Ayling, as a banker, handled the “legal and financial arrangements” after the board of directors unanimously approved the purchase for $35,000 — or the equivalent of a mere $455,000 in 2021 value.

In 1970, when CCH turned the ripe age of 50, philanthropist Larry G. Newman wrote the introduction to the hospital’s official anniversary notice. Newman, a famous foreign correspondent during WWII, was a close friend of President Eisenhower and General Patton; he later become one of the original panelists on Meet the Press. His wife, Mary Francis Falvey, and her family had long been supporters of the hospital, so Newman lent his pen to the anniversary festivities, stating: 

We have become so blasé, we accept the Cape Cod Hospital as something to which we have a right. We seldom take a second look at the magnificent men and women of medicine who are but a minute away. I am guilty with those who read these few words. We accept as ours the doctors, the nurses, the technicians, those in the out-patient rooms in the silence of a winter night, and in the crush of a summer day. But it, and they, are fleeting shadows until the need comes to us. Then like the old Cape Codder at sea…, we cry out, but not in vain.

In his research for Old Hyannis Port, the 1968 history book co-authored by Larry G. Newman and Paul Fairbanks Herrick, Newman was drawn to accounts of early Cape doctors. He wrote, “I found myself trying also to learn about Dr. Albert Pick who parked his shining rig and spanking mare at the side door of Hyannis Port’s old Hallet House, and ministered to the summer people in the 1880’s and 1890’s who came all the way from St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and even more distant parts of our land to enjoy Old Cape Cod.” Other 19th century doctors who paved the way for the founding of the Cape Cod Hospital included Dr. Matthew Fuller and his son Dr. John Fuller. Newman’s proposition—that folks on the Cape have cared for each other for many years but had come to take the health industry for granted—is summed up with an analogy about neighbors. There had once been a farm in Hyannis Port that grew digitalis, or foxglove, used to make a cardiac glycoside for treating atrial arrhythmias and congenital heart failure. Newman wondered, “Who bought it for sale to heart trouble victims in that long ago? Or did David Hinckley who owned the farm grow it for his friends? Neighbors did think often of their neighbors even in those harsh and often puritanical days. Might we think of giving that philosophy another try as the Cape Cod Hospital reaches the end of its half century of service to all our own and those who came by the millions nowadays to enjoy our precious narrow land?” 

While it is a tragic irony that the hospital was born in the time of the Spanish Flu, back in 1918, and Cape Cod Healthcare reached its 100 year anniversary in the midst of the current COVID-19 pandemic, community support for frontline workers is visible throughout the Cape, where signs thanking these heroes have appeared in many businesses and on front lawns. It seems that the pleas of Larry G. Newman have been heard, and that residents and visitors alike are thinking of their neighbors; one hopes that no one is taking the “health industry” for granted at the moment. Since its inception in Dr. Gleason’s summer home, Cape Cod Healthcare has added the Falmouth Hospital (in 1963) and over 100 offices and locations with offerings that include acute care, homecare, rehabilitation, assisted living, and hospice services from the canal to Race Point. Over 450 physicians, 5300 employees, and 750 volunteers contribute to CCHC’s ongoing mission. And so, from the vision of Charles Ayling in 1918 to the volunteers, donors, and employees who have supported Cape Cod Healthcare over the years, to every essential worker within the network today, Cape Cod Life Publications humbly offers gratitude. Thank you all for your service, thank you for 100 years of healing and caring. Keep up the good fight; because of your work, hope remains that the bicentennial celebrations will arrive in a happier, healthier time for the globe and for Cape Cod.

Visit Cape Cod Healthcare online at capecodhealthcare.org

Chris White

Chris White is a frequent writer for Cape Cod Life Publications and has written on topics ranging from the history of Smith’s Tavern on Wellfleet Island to the sinking of the SS Andrea Doria off Nantucket. Chris also teaches English at Tabor Academy in Marion.