The more I learn about the early days of Ocean City, the more I marvel over how the fledgling resort drew so many men and women who were so full of entrepreneurial zeal. Case in point: Francis Townsend, Sr. Townsend was not a hotel builder or restaurateur, however. The native of Snow Hill, Md., was a physician, the first in the town’s history. He practiced between 1900 and 1945.
Doctoring in Ocean City was a tough gig then. The nearest hospital was in Salisbury, 30 miles away. There were no ambulances in Ocean City until 1939. The roads were often in dreadful shape. Train transport worked best for emergency cases, but there was only one train departure a day, at 6:30am.
That left Dr. Townsend working with his sickest, most desperate patients for hours at a time before he could get them en route to a hospital. Typhoid fever was a special challenge in those years, too, thanks to a sewage system that dumped raw waste into Sinepuxent Bay, where traces of it would swirl this way and that for a while before ending up in the town’s drinking water.
Francis Townsend’s Entrepreneurial Streak
Early on, Dr. Townsend famously made his way to and from house calls by riding a bicycle up and down the boardwalk. Pedaling was easier there than on Baltimore Avenue, which in the early years of his practice was just a wide path made of packed sand, perfect for horses. Numerous books and articles about old Ocean City mention Dr. Townsend’s incredibly long work days, which often ended late at night and then started up again with house calls in the wee hours of the morning.
Dr. Townsend operated a pharmacy on top of that workload. As you can see in the old newspaper advertisement shown here, it was open daily from 8am to noon and located at Caroline Street.
The pharmacy is where Dr. Townsend’s entrepreneurial side really came to the fore. He built the first boardwalk bandstand in Ocean City, and he did it with his own money right near the drug store. It wasn’t simply an act of civic do-gooderism—the soda fountain in that pharmacy was jam-packed on concert nights.
Have you seen old photos of the adorable wicker carts people used to ride in up and down the boardwalk? Dr. Townsend’s pharmacy was the business that brought those chairs to town. (In fact, in the photo up top here with two children, the one on the left is Francis Townsend, Jr.)
Last but not least: The small print in that old newspaper ad for the pharmacy hints at the most interesting of Dr. Townsend’s business endeavors. “Magice Prescription No. 22” offered “speedy and unfailing” relief from sunburn to “thousands upon thousands of satisfied users.” Invented by Townsend in 1912, this cream was a mix of camphor, menthol, phenol, eucalyptus, and other ingredients.
There are several versions out there of the next chapter in the story, and I haven’t been able to figure out which version is true. One says Dr. Townsend was eager to see his sunburn cream help more patients, so he shared his recipe with a Baltimore physician, George Bunting, in no-strings-attached fashion. Another is that Dr. Bunting took Dr. Townsend’s recipe for Magice Prescription #22” and claimed it as his own, denying that Dr. Townsend was involved in any way. Then there is the in-between version, which has Bunting coming up with a new and improved variation on Dr. Townsend’s original recipe.
‘The Miracle Cream of Baltimore’
In any case, “Dr. Bunting’s Sunburn Remedy” soon became a big hit in Baltimore. By 1920, it was being called Noxzema, apparently in reference to its effectiveness against eczema as well as sunburn. That was also the year when the Noxzema Chemical Company opened its first factory. By the 1940s, the “miracle cream of Baltimore” had gone nationwide.
Over the decades, the Noxzema Chemical Company became a subsidiary of a parent company, Noxell Corporation, which remained under the control of the Bunting Family into the 1980s. Noxell developed several other Noxzema products—shaving cream, cold cream, and suntan lotion among them. Noxell also launched the CoverGirl line of cosmetics.
Proctor and Gamble bought Noxell in 1989. A decade later, Proctor and Gamble sold the Noxzema brand to a company called Alberto-Culver, which was then purchased by Unilever, the current owner of Noxzema.
A Pair of Generous Legacies
Back in Baltimore nowadays, you can get a sense for how things turned out for the Bunting family by visiting Johns Hopkins Hospital and thinking about how generous the Bunting family has been with their Noxzema fortune. There is the Bunting-Blaustein Cancer Research Building, the Bunting Interfaith Chapel, the Bunting Neighborhood Leadership Program, and a special endowed Bunting professorship.
In Ocean City, Francis Townsend did just fine for himself. Early on, Townsend and his wife, the former Anna Rayne, lived above their drug store, but they soon moved into a sprawling Victorian a few blocks away. You can see Townsend and Anna here in 1915, showing off their newfangled automobile on the boardwalk with help from some neighbors outside of the Life Saving Station. Dr. Townsend was one of the first people in town to buy a car.
The whole town held Dr. Townsend in high regard. His funeral fell during the height of tourism season–on July 4, 1945. In spite of that timing, every business in Ocean City closed for three hours that afternoon in homage to their town’s first doctor.
Francis Jr. followed in his father’s footsteps, opening a medical practice in 1947 and keeping at it for 40 years. In retirement during the 1990s, the younger Dr. Townsend spearheaded the effort to build Atlantic General Hospital and finally make it so that the people of Ocean City and Worcester County didn’t have to travel all the way to Salisbury when they needed a hospital. (Atlantic General runs a Townsend Medical Center at 10th Street that is named in honor of Francis Jr.)
—research and writing by Jim Duffy’ posted on May 25, 2018
—copyright Secrets of the Eastern Shore through Whimbrel Creations LLC
NOTE: I have one last tidbit to share about the elder Dr. Thompson. This is the entirety of an item from a 1911 edition of a trade magazine called The Pharmaceutical Era, and it says to me that he was a man you didn’t want to try and swindle:
“Ex-Salesman Accused in Bogus Check Case”
Baltimore, Dec. 20–Dr. Francis J. Townsend, a physician and druggist of Ocean City, Md., was victimized to the extent of $85 by a bogus check transaction. He came to Baltimore and by doing some detective work, caused the arrest of Louis Weinfeld, formerly a salesman for Huyler, the New York candy manufacturer. Weinfeld was held for the Ocean City authorities. There are other charges of a similar nature against him.