Our History

By Clifford L. Graves, MD, 1961

The young man at the taffrail of the good ship Orizaba as she rounded Point Loma was in a thoughtful mood. This was not the first time he had admired the colorful panorama of San Diego Bay, but it was the first time he was here on business; the business of finding a home.

Slowly the steamer made her way toward the little settlement on the curving shore. Noisily she dropped anchor. Awkwardly she discharged her passenger into the skiff that came out from the wharf. It was a warm day, and by the time the young man had dumped his two heavy valises into the skiff, he was wiping his brow. The date was November 8, 1853.

For Dr. David Bancroft Hoffman, 28 years old and a recent graduate of Toland Medical College in San Francisco, it was a warm day in more ways than one. While most of his classmates had started to practice as soon as they received their diplomas, he had delayed. Literate and ambitious, he wanted to see the world before it swallowed him. A job as ship's surgeon with the Pacific Mail Steamship Co. gave him his chance, and for the better part of a year he cruised between San Francisco and Panama. Most of the cities he saw left him cold, but the little town of San Diego stirred him to a feeling of warmth. When his contract was up, he decided to have a closer look.

He liked San Diego, but could he make a living in it as a doctor? There was only one man who had tried it, and he died the same month Dr. Hoffman appeared on the scene. Perhaps it was this broken thread that influenced the young man in his decision. At any rate, he was full of hope and confidence.

And yet, San Diego in 1853 was not exactly a town to inspire great hope and confidence. Like Gaul, it consisted of three parts: La Playa, Old Town, and New Town. Together these mustered a population of barely 600, and a good many of those were Mexicans without visible means of support. With its dusty streets, dilapidated houses, and barren hinterland, the town would undoubtedly qualify as a depressed area in the modern sociologist's book.

Old Town was the nerve center. In 1853 Old Town had about 100 houses, mostly adobe and mostly ramshackle. Some of these had been built around a small plaza. Here were the stores (all seven of them), the bars, and the hotel, and here is where all the excitement took place, when there was any. New Town was so new that nobody paid any attention to it.

La Playa was the port. The only excitement at La Playa was the arrival every other week of the Orizaba. Otherwise, the place was as dead as its cemetery. Since Dr. Hoffman was the only passenger to get off the Orizaba, he received the full treatment. Old Donohoe of the Ocean House warmly shook his hand, poured him a drink, and started to give him the news of the fighting at Ensenada. Then, on the urging of the visitor, he hitched up his mules to the buckboard. Dr. Hoffman barely had time to throw his two valises aboard and jump on himself. The mules took off in a wild gallop, and they galloped all the way to Old Town over a road so rough that any further conversation was impossible. This was the standard welcome for visitors to San Diego, except for the few who came overland.

At the plaza Dr. Hoffman shook the dust from his greatcoat and found, to his profound relief, that his valises had survived the trip. These valises contained not only all his belongings but also his stock in trade: the blue pills and the yellow ointment, the red bottles and the black balsam. As for potential patients, there was only one in sight, a comatose Mexican on the sidewalk in front of the Exchange Hotel. Old Donohoe winked an eye, “There's your first patient, Doc. If you can wake him up, you're good.”

In the next few weeks, Dr. Hoffman played it by ear. He met a lot of people, held a lot of curbstone consultations, and made a great impression on Mr. Ames, the irascible editor of the Herald. Mr. Ames quickly saw that the new doctor was head and shoulders above the only other purveyor of medicines in San Diego: self-styled Doc Snead. Hence it was no surprise that the Herald of November 12 carried a bold announcement:

"Dr. D.B. Hoffman, Physician, Surgeon, Accoucheur, May Be Found at the Office of the Herald"

The arrangement lasted only until the patients began to overflow into Mr. Ames' office, a period of about four weeks. Then one day, shortly after Christmas, Mr. Ames said, “There's a room for rent next to Lyon's variety store. Why don't you think about it?” Dr. Hoffman thought about it for three seconds and rented the room. He was in.

Dr. Hoffman was no charlatan. Well trained, energetic, and imbued with a desire to be of service, he quickly ran through the blue pills and yellow ointment, the red bottles and the black balsam. He needed more of everything, particularly smallpox vaccine because smallpox was epidemic. Back he went to San Francisco and back he came to San Diego with the works. Now the Herald let it be known that Dr. Hoffman would vaccinate all and sundry and he would do it free of charge for those unable to pay. This advertisement immediately endeared the new doctor to the community. From then on his success was assured.

The young doctor did not need to be told to take an active interest in the affairs of his community. He fairly jumped into them. In 1855 he was elected coroner; in 1857 town trustee; in 1859 district attorney (he had been admitted to the bar in 1856); in 1862 assemblyman; in 1865 trustee of the school board; in 1868 presidential elector; and in 1869 collector of the port. At one time or another he was acting assistant surgeon for the garrison, head of the debating team, president of an organization promoting a road to Yuma, vice president of the city water company, commissioner of the Circuit Court, trustee of the San Diego and San Bernardino Railroad, and a member of the Central Committee of the Independent Party.

He was also the first president of the San Diego County Medical Society. This was in 1870 when there were 10 doctors in San Diego, eight of whom signed the charter. Undismayed by the small size of his constituency, Dr. Hoffman delivered a formal address in which he called on his colleagues to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.

Dr. Hoffman was tall, dark, and handsome with a high forehead, aristocratic features and a flowing beard. He always treated his patients with the utmost courtesy and he was full of compassion for those who were destitute as well as sick. One day he was approached by a tramp for a handout. Dr. Hoffman took a close look, noticed the malar flush, took the man to his office, and diagnosed enteric fever. The following day he wrote a letter to the board of trustees pointing out the health hazard and pleading for facilities where the indigent sick could be treated. The board promptly voted funds and Dr. Hoffman thus gave the impetus for what eventually became the county hospital.

During his 22 years in San Diego, Dr. Hoffman was not only the beloved physician but also the public-spirited citizen. Not that he had a bed of roses; he undoubtedly suffered frustrations. He must have been keenly aware that San Diego was an outpost, a way station, and a vermiform appendix. It could not offer him intellectual stimulation. Neither could it offer him many people who were his peers in taste, in culture, or in outlook. But it did offer him a place of peace and beauty in which to live. A place to raise his family, practice his profession, and leave his imprint on. Time again, when returning from his considerable travels, he would exclaim, “How good to be back in San Diego!” Today, it is still good to be in San Diego because men like Dr. Hoffman built wisely and well.

In the entire time before 1870, only nine physicians had practiced in San Diego. Among them were Drs. Edward Burr and R.J. Gregg, both Jefferson graduates, who came in 1868, just in time for a smallpox epidemic. Old Town quarantine was enforced by Dr. Burr who sprayed passengers with a “perfume.”

Dr. Jacob Allen preceded them by a few years, practicing medicine and opening Allen's Drug Store at 5th and F Streets in 1865. Among newspaper announcements of the day we find a notice of a Dr. Sing Ping, a graduate of the Peking Medical School of Meka-Quak. He practiced the art of laundry at the same time. Dr. Gregg joined Dr. Burr as his assistant in 1868 and 1869, moving from Old Town to the new Horton's Addition to offices opposite Allen's Drug Store. Dr. Gregg practiced until 1910, dying at the age of 82. He was often consulted as an alienist in court, being the first to pay attention to what is now called psychiatry, before the introduction of Freudian theory.

The San Diego County Medical Society began on July 19, 1870, with a preliminary meeting. Qualifications for membership were a good primary education, a diploma from a medical school of good repute, and good professional and moral standing in the community.

San Diego grew rapidly; 1872 was called the “Year of the Awakening.” There were 4,000 persons, 1,000 homes, two wholesale houses, two saddleries, five livery stables, four drug stores, one bank and 23 saloons. For comparison: in 1888, a boom time, there were 30,000 persons, 12 wholesale liquor houses, 71 saloons, 73 physicians and surgeons, 11 dentists, two midwives, three cemeteries, three undertakers and 238 real estate dealers. In some there may have been duplication; even in 1920 there was a physician that displayed a sign in his front yard indicating that real estate was among his hobbies.

The first San Diego directory in 1866 listed 1,700 residents with 26 physicians and surgeons including Drs. R.J. Gregg, A. Morgan, D.B. Northrop, T.C. Stockton, C.C. Valle, “Eye, Ear, and Throat Only,” and W.A. Winder. In addition, Mrs. Anges Barr was listed as “homeopath and electrician,” and Dr. T.L. Mcgee was listed as “physician, surgeon, electrician, complete apparatus of electrical appliances for medical purposes. Hemorrhoids, rectal ulcers, fistula, no knife. Nasal catarrh, all chronic respiratory affections, improved methods of inhalations. 5th between G & H.” Galvanism was still used as late as 1900.

The second directory in 1887 lists 77 doctors, including three “Mrs.,” one homeopath, and one Chinese (also operated a laundry on the side). Dr. P.C. Remondino is on neither list as during this time he was busy managing the first Hotel St. James, where a Dr. Lukes had an office.

The 1881 San Diego Telephone Exchange listed 39 subscribers, including two doctors: Drs. P.C. Remondino, infirmary and residence, and T.C. Stockton, residence. (The Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Co. started in San Diego in the early 1890s, formally taking over the old company in 1916. Many doctors had both Pacific and Exchange telephones until then.) In 1887 the ferry crossed the bay 90 times a day. Stages traveled to La Jolla Park at 8:30 a.m. and 9:30 a.m., returned at 5 p.m. and 6 p.m., and cost $1.00.

Two Societies

While San Diego was growing and feuding, the San Diego County Medical Society was organizing. After the splendid start of the Medical Society in 1870, the records from 1870 to 1887 were lost. In March, 1887, a constitution was adopted and from then on official records are continuous to date.

The present Medical Society, with excellent parentage but with questionable legitimacy, was finally given a good birth certificate by the state society. We still await information from the state society's archives, if the records survived the quake and fire; meanwhile we are rejoicing in our high social status.

When Drs. Charlotte and Fred Baker arrived in January, 1888, they were invited by Dr. R. Armstrong to join the San Diego County Medical Society. He warned that there was another society claiming to be the authentic one under Dr. D. McSwegan which they also would be asked to join.

From Society records, a meeting on March 16, 1887, was called to order by Dr. McSwegan, president, who asked the committee to read a draft it had prepared of a constitution and bylaws. A dispute arose concerning the date of the annual meeting. As the argument increased, Dr. McSwegan said he had been elected president for the year and certain outside parties had arranged the new constitution to get him out of the office. He threatened Drs. J.R. Doig and Stockton with “exposure” in the public press. Dr. Stockton moved the annual meeting to be held the third Wednesday in March. Dr. McSwegan ruled the motion out of order. A unanimous vote supported Dr. Stockton. Dr. McSwegan took the society's papers, books, and official register, said they were his personal property, and left the meeting.

After Dr. McSwegan left, elections were held. Officers selected were Drs. W.N. Smart, president; C.C. Valle, vice president; R. Armstrong, secretary; D.B. Northrop, treasurer. The actions of the meeting were reported to Dr. Plummer in San Francisco, the head of the State Board of Examiners.

The San Diego Union of Friday, March 18, 1887, carried this statement: “We are requested to state that the association of physicians organizing Wednesday evening noticed in yesterday's issue has no connection with the San Diego Medical Society of which Dr. McSwegan is president.”

On April 6, 1887, the San Diego County Medical Society met Wednesday and elected Drs. Valle, Northrop, Stockton, Remondino, F.R. Gray, C.M. Johnston, Smart, and Armstrong to attend the state meeting to be held in San Francisco.

On April 7, 1887, the other San Diego Medical Society held its regular meeting in the office of Dr. McSwegan. On motion, Dr. G.P. Holman was elected secretary. Drs. McSwegan, Remondino, Holman, Schmitt, and Winder were elected delegates to the state meeting to be held April 20 in San Francisco.

Dr. Armstrong, the (present) society delegate to the state meeting, presented a document signed by 16 medical men of San Diego, stating that Dr. McSwegan was not president of the local society. This apparently satisfied the state society; Dr. McSwegan's delegates were not seated.

The next year, 1888, Dr. Hoffman died. He had seen his dream of a medical society come true.