Friday, November 16, 2012

Doctor in the house? In this case, two!

One of the things I've always liked about living in old buildings is the possibility that someone noteworthy once lived there. Think about it: any random place might have been where a notable statesman was born, or where an inventor first became intrigued by a great idea. Our Hidden New Jersey travels sometimes unearth these gems, revealing the connection of place and deed with a wayside sign or historical marker.

Then there are the places even we would pass without a thought. They're interesting and notable in their own way, but you'd never know it because there's no sign to tell you.

The Slack-Carroll House in Dayton is a case in point. Even if we'd driven past it on a birding jaunt, I'd have considered it to be just another a nice-looking old house near a busy intersection. In reality, it represents the once-vanguard of medicine for a small farming village and the civic commitment of two noted physicians. More recently, it's become an evolving symbol of a community's desire to preserve its past and tell its own story. One of our readers, a Dayton resident himself, suggested we check it out.

We'll start with the doctors. Born locally in 1840, Clarence Slack attended Philadelphia's Jefferson Medical College during the Civil War and joined the U.S. Navy soon after graduation. He served on the gunboat USS Pembina and later extended his military service as surgeon of the third regiment of the New Jersey National Guard.

Following the war, Dr. Slack returned to New Jersey and became the first physician to have an office in Dayton. He conducted his practice from a section of his house, which was the town's first to have indoor plumbing. The Italianate-style home also accommodated a two-bed hospital, accessible through a separate entrance.

Dr. Slack took an active interest in his community beyond medicine, serving Middlesex County as a freeholder and county clerk for many years. He also held leadership roles in numerous civic, professional and fraternal groups, including the local Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), the Masons, the Medical Society of New Jersey and the Order of Military Surgeons of New Jersey.

It's not clear whether his county government obligations affected his work in Dayton, but Dr. Slack eventually moved to New Brunswick in 1883 and combined forces with his nephew, who was both a physician and a pharmacist. Another doctor took over his Dayton practice briefly before succumbing to cancer, and a third reportedly also had a practice in the village for a brief time. The office and house at 354 Georges Road finally found a new, long-term resident in 1887 when Dr. Slack sold it to fellow Jefferson Medical College alumnus Edward Wallace Carroll.

Having started his own practice in Dayton two years earlier, Dr. Carroll was the community's beloved country doctor until his death in 1934. Information on him is scant, but local historians have determined that the Carroll family had an impressive record of service in the medical arena. His three older brothers, all physicians, held high posts during the Civil War, including medical advisor to President Lincoln. Another brother was the official pharmacist in charge of the U.S. Dispensary in Washington, DC. Dr. Carroll himself served several times as Middlesex County Physician, acting as expert witness for the county in court cases. He was also on the staff of St. Peter's Hospital in New Brunswick.

Unlike many of the historic places we've visited, the Slack-Carroll house told us none of this story itself. We stopped by on a Sunday afternoon and found the house quiet, with no mention of regular visiting hours on the bulletin board outside the office entrance. The Dayton Village Citizens' Commission is still researching the history of the house, the physicians and the medical care appropriate to their respective eras. As a result, the house is open only for special events, as advertised on the Commission website. Past exhibits have highlighted the life of a typical country doctor and medical practices during the Civil War.

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