Site  by Lynne Landwehr © 2004  






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[Note: The following piece was written as background text for the San Luis Obispo County Medical Society and San Luis Obispo County Health Foundation's video presentation entitled "Early Champions in Health: San Luis Obispo County, 1860-1900."  The video is available through the SLO County Medical Society, tel. 805/544-3020.] 



1860 – 1900
by Lynne Landwehr

The Area’s Earliest Healthcare

     For as long as human beings have inhabited the Central Coast of California, they have had to meet their basic needs of food, shelter, and yes, of healthcare.  The native Chumash and Salinan peoples relied on age-old traditions of herbal medicine, bleedings, incantations, and on the area’s many hot sulphur springs and mud baths.  They were, of course, active people, and their diet was based largely on acorns, seeds, roots, and fish in a time long before cholesterol levels became a preoccupation.

     With the arrival of the Spanish colonizers, the Native Americans suffered the ravages of European diseases such as measles, smallpox, and syphilis.  What medical care the native peoples received from the Spanish, would have been provided by the padres stationed at the area’s two missions.  At the San Luis Obispo mission, special “hospital” rooms were set aside for the care of Indian converts, and in an early report sent back to the Spanish government, Father Martinez explained, “The sick have their special food in the hospital where the atole of corn tortillas is prepared for them, besides a dish of veal or beef or both together….” Despite these measures, European-based medicine in those early days was itself a mix of age-old superstitions and new knowledge. 

     The Mexicans who settled on the large ranchos beginning in the 1830s had to be largely self-sufficient—and this meant that every rancho had an herb garden—for plants like tavardio, yerba santa, yerba del oso, yerba colorada, maruka, hul-val, yerba del golpe, and a plant the Indians called temelhepe.  These herbs could be rubbed on wounds, made into plasters, or brewed into teas to treat a wide range of complaints.   Food itself was used as medicine:  for sinus problems, one could eat the white meat of a white hen stewed in white wine; for jaundice, a diet of radishes and sugar; for kidney ailments, four ounces of fresh butter and ˝ pint of white wine taken without ceasing to swallow.  

Early Days in the New County

     The Gold Rush began in 1848 and brought thousands of fortune seekers to California.  This, in turn, brought statehood in 1850.  And statehood brought more people--from the East Coast and the prairies, from Central and South America, and from across the Pacific, a tide of newcomers arrived.  Some still sought gold, but as the rich strikes were eventually exhausted, the rush was no longer for gold, but for land. 

     San Luis Obispo County in the 1850s and ‘60s was an isolated place, and a dangerous place, as Anglo settlers disputed land claims with Mexican pioneers and native peoples.  A vigilante committee was formed, and men were hanged from the beams outside Mission San Luis Obispo.  Visitors were often appalled at what they witnessed.  William H. Brewer, passing through with the Whitney Geological Survey in 1861, wrote “It is a common thing to see the highest officials of this county drunk on the streets here in town, but this is a notoriously hard place.  We never go to sleep without having our revolvers handy.”  It was a hard place in other ways—life expectancy was 50 years; typhoid and diphtheria lurked in the shadows; and ranch and farm work was never-ending and exhausting, with many people taken “before their time” by poisonings, burns, explosions, runaway horses, and farm or mining accidents.

     Slowly, small settlements grew larger, particularly the agriculture-based towns of San Luis Obispo and Arroyo Grande, and the lumber-and-mining economy of Cambria.  And among the new arrivals were those who would bring a different level of health care to county residents.  It was still an age when germ theory was not appreciated, when the use of ether in anesthesia was in its infancy, and when antibiotics were unknown. In the mixture of art and science that made up medical care, there was still more art than science, but the balance was beginning to shift. 

Arrival of Dr. W. W. Hays

     In 1866, Dr. William Williams Hays arrived in the County, the first Anglo physician to establish himself in permanent practice.  Born in Maryland, he had attended schools in the East, and had worked as a meteorologist at the Smithsonian Institution in order to finance his medical studies at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

     When the War Between the States broke out, he had joined the Union Army as an assistant surgeon, but his sympathies were torn due to his love for a lively Virginia girl named Sarah Susan Parks, whom he married in 1862.  A transfer shortly thereafter from the Civil War hospitals of Washington D.C. to the Presidio in California removed Hays from this conflict between heart and conscience.

     Upon release from the Army after the war’s end, Dr. Hays looked around for a place to settle permanently, and he decided on San Luis Obispo.  The climate was good for the lung problems he had suffered back East; there was no regular doctor in the county; and the area was starting to “build up.”  Hays decided to build up his practice along with the County.  For the next thirty years, the story of Dr. W. W. Hays would be an important part of the story of healthcare in San Luis Obispo County.

     The Hays family, which by now included two young daughters, moved into an adobe home just south of the Mission on Monterey Street.  Mrs. Hays was the first English-speaking woman to settle in the City of San Luis Obispo, and only the second in the County.  With a husband who was a typical horseback doctor, away on calls at all hours and in all weather, Sarah Hays early on learned to turn rely on her Spanish-speaking neighbors, who referred to her as “Dońa Sarah.” 

     Dr. Hays responded to all calls for help, but sent bills only to the patients able to pay.  On the records of the others, he would write “Charge to the Treasury of Heaven.”  Besides his medical work, Dr. Hays was a member of the Masons, the Odd Fellows, the Grand Army of the Republic, and the National Guard.  The first Sunday School classes of the town’s small Episcopal congregation were held in the Hays home, and Dr. Hays helped select the site of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, to be built at the corner of Pismo and Nipomo Streets.  In his spare time, this frontier doctor kept daily records of temperature and rainfall and sent his reports back to the Smithsonian Institution, where he had worked as a young man.   

     In addition to these activities, Dr. Hays was active on the City Board of Health and in the California Medical Society, and was elected first Coroner of the City of San Luis Obispo.  For this office, he was required to testify in court, where it was often helpful to know the exact time that a plaintiff had been injured. The town of San Luis Obispo was still a wild place, full of saloons, with fights breaking out all the time, many of them ending in shootings.  These shootings were often heard by the Hays children as they played in the creek-bed near their home.  So Dr. Hays taught them to tell time, and trained them to run right up to the house when they heard shots, and to look at the family clock and write down the exact moment of the shooting.

     In 1872, out of concern about the quality of the city’s drinking water, Dr. Hays and several partners formed a partnership with the intent of furnishing clean water to the town.  When the goal was achieved several years later, the newspaper praised the partners, saying that “Their united endeavors have at length superceded the necessity of the dependence upon the water cart; and now all our townsmen can at once enjoy good and pure water for household purposes and at the same time immunity from fire….”

     The new water system didn’t prevent a typhoid outbreak in 1875, and Dr. Hays must have supported the views of the surveyor and engineer who wrote the newspaper saying, “There is nothing more certain than that the terribly malignant typhoid fever that came upon the town last winter belonged to the class of preventable diseases, and was the direct result of …a neglect of sanitary laws….There is at present, a small wooden sewer in the center of the town, choked up and overflowing with filth.  It cannot be doubted that the air from this sewer is saturated with the seeds of disease….We eat in four of our principal hotels, all within a radius of 50 yards of this spot, from food that has been exposed to these seeds of disease.” 

Other Practitioners Arrive

     Meanwhile, the town was filling up, and other medical practitioners were arriving, including a number of pharmacists and a young, circuit-riding dentist who traveled by horseback between the towns of San Luis Obispo and Cambria.  For the hundreds of Chinese who called the 800 black of Palm Street "home," the local merchant and labor contractor Ah Louis doubled as a healthcare provider.  One whole wall of his store was lined with drawers containing the roots, bark, herbs, and extracts from which he prepared tonics to cure chills, fever, coughs, and nausea, and from which he made poultices for the injuries suffered by the Chinese railroad workers, ranch cooks, and road laborers.  But when Ah Louis' oldest son fell ill with typhoid fever, it was Dr. Hays who was called to treat him.

     In the South County, in the early years, women in labor called for Mrs. Ernest Ketchum—they knew it was never too cold, never too stormy, and never too far for Mrs. Ketchum to ride to help deliver a baby.  Then in 1883, Dr. Edward Paulding arrived, one of the first doctors to establish a regular practice in the South County.  Years later, his daughter Ruth recalled that her father “was traveling through on the P.C. Railroad [and] observed pumpkins stacked on top of one another in the fields of the [Arroyo Grande] valley.  He said to the conductor, ‘Why do they stack those pumpkins like that in the field?’ ‘Why, man, they grow that way.’ The new doctor thought that any valley that would grow pumpkins so thick would be able to support a doctor in fine style.”  As it turned out, when money was scarce, Dr. Paulding had to accept payment in chickens, eggs, beans, or potatoes—whatever a patient could come up with.  Many of his patients were homesteaders with no cash to speak of, and sometimes, when they came in from quite a distance, his wife Clara ended up boarding not just the patient, but the whole family, until the patient was well enough to return home.

Establishment of County Hospital and Farm

     As early as the 1860s, the County hired various physicians to care for the indigent sick.  The first of them, Dr. Edward Albert, had attended medical school in his native Germany.  He spoke seven languages fluently, which would have helped him to communicate with patients who were for the most part first-generation immigrants.   One after another of the local doctors became involved in this contract work for the County, with physicians bidding against one another for the business--$4.00 per patient per day, $3.00 per patient per day, even $1.25 per patient per day. 

     By 1874, the County Supervisors were thinking about the need for a public hospital.  As has been known to happen since, they appointed a committee.  It consisted of Dr. Hays and two other men to study the problem, and after two and a half years, they recommended to the supervisors a site near the top of present-day Johnson Avenue, chosen because it was in the “thermal belt,” beyond the fog, so that indigent patients could grow their own food.  The property had a year-round spring which would provide water for hospital and garden needs.

     The building work was started on the County Hospital and Farm, and the Supervisors awarded Dr. Hays $75 for traveling expenses and sent him around the state to find the best models of hospital administration and practice.  The doors of the Hospital were first opened to patients on February 14, 1879.  On the staff of the $6,000 facility were Dr. Hays, a male nurse named T.J. Luce, a manager, and a cook.  In that first year, the hospital would admit 52 patients.  Their ailments and afflictions included bronchitis, cerebral congestion, cirrhosis, dyspepsia, epilepsy, hemphlegia, kidney disease, neuralgia, phthisis, pneumonia, syphilis, and varicose veins.

     Nursing practice at the hospital incorporated the recommendations which Florence Nightingale had made in her 1860 Notes on Nursing: What It Is, and What It Is Not.  She had stressed the importance of cleanliness, good ventilation, and especially of observation:  “The most important practical lesson that can be given to nurses is to teach them what to observe—how to observe, what symptoms indicate improvement, what the reverse, which are of importance, which are of none, which are the evidence of neglect, and of what kind of neglect….If you cannot get the habit of observation one way or another, you had better give up the being a nurse, for it is not your calling, however kind and anxious you may be.” 


Other Forms of Treatment

     The establishment of a County hospital, along with the eventual presence of several private sanitariums, indicated the growth of a more organized, more scientific approach to medical practice.  But there were still plenty of alternatives to the scientific approach, and these alternatives filled the gaps where science was lacking. Traveling phrenologists offered to examine the configuration of patients’ heads to determine the source of their ailments. With the advent of electricity came a new array of gadgets, including “galvanic belts” and electric “flesh brushes.”  And the claims of patent medicines took care of everything else:  “Grateful thousands proclaim Dr. Walker’s Vinegar Bitters the most wonderful Invigorant that ever sustained the sinking system!”…“Old Mexican Mustang Liniment has the oldest and best record of any liniment in the world--as a healing and pain-subduing beneficial to MAN and BEAST!”…“Homestead Tonic Plantation Bitters is a purely vegetable preparation which will relieve and cure the following complaints:  dyspepsia, jaundice, liver complaints, loss of appetite, headache, bilious attacks, fever and ague, summer complaints, sour stomach, and palpitations of the heart.  It is intended strictly as a Temperance Tonic and is to be used as a medicine only, and always according to directions!” 

     Somewhere between alternative treatments and standard medical offerings were the hot sulphur springs at El Paso de Robles, the oldest and best-known of the county’s thermal waters. Owner Daniel Blackburn kept two physicians on staff, but was nearly bankrupted by the invalids who were dropped at his door.  Southern-born, he maintained a tradition of hospitality which meant never turning away a visitor—the poor stayed and were treated.  If they lived to tell about what the Paso Robles waters had done for them, they’d be followed by another round of indigents whom Blackburn seldom turned away.

Progress By the End of the Century

     Slowly, from the early frontier days, the quality of life in the county had improved.  The roster of county physicians had grown to include homeopaths, surgeons, and other specialists.  In the last years of the century, Dr. Hays helped found the County Medical Society, which became a chartered organization in 1892.

     Meanwhile, the Southern Pacific Railroad had connected the county to points north, roads had been built, lending libraries had sprung up, techniques of refrigeration had improved, and a vaccination against the dreaded typhoid fever had been developed.  In the mix of art and science that made up the field of medicine, science was beginning to eclipse art.  This was manifested in the 1895 introduction of the X-ray by German physicist Dr. Wilhelm Roentgen.  The stunning nature of this advance could hardly be imagined.  For the first time, it was possible to actually view the extent of an injury or the course of a disease without having to cut the patient open! 

Accomplishments and Legacy of Dr. Hays

     In his long practice in the County, Dr. Hays had seen the number of county residents more than triple—from under 5,000 when he arrived, to over 16,000 at the turn of the century.  He had witnessed the transition from the large Mexican-owned ranchos, with their huge herds of cattle, to the smaller holdings of farmers and homesteaders.  He had watched the County change from an isolated backwater to a connected backwater—connected to the excitement, conveniences, and attractions of San Francisco by the miracle of the Southern Pacific Railroad.   

     He had treated all manner of illness and injury—amputations, broken bones, burns, chills, diphtheria, dysentery, fevers, gunshot wounds, overdoses of laudanum and opium, poisonings, ricketts, sprains, tuberculosis, and typhoid.  But his greatest medical challenge may have been his own alcoholism, which had its roots in the tragedies of the Civil War battlefields and field hospitals, and which took greater hold of him with the punishing schedule and rigorous travel demanded of a frontier doctor, and with the death of his only son Eric at the age of 23.  In his last years, Dr. Hays saw his family members depart one by one, unable to deal with his excessive drinking.  Yet somehow, he managed to continue his practice right up to his death in 1901. 

     Dr. Hays is buried in the old Odd Fellows Cemetery on South Higuera Street, but his spirit still roams the area.  His presence can be felt when one views his old adobe home, now clapboarded over, at 642 Monterey Street, and the brick-and-mortar outbuilding behind the San Luis Mission, where he stabled his team of matched white horses.  The signpost for Hays Street, at the upper end of Grand Avenue just before the entrance to the Cal Poly campus, recalls the site of Dr. Hays’s second home, which in his day was still “out in the country.”  His spirit graces the Episcopal church he helped build, and the grounds of the hospital he helped to create.  His legacy is one of concern and care for all, regardless of origin or ability to pay.  

     Sixty years after his death, Dr. Hays was still very much a presence in the mind of an octogenarian lady of San Luis Obispo, whose mind had begun to travel into the yesteryears, when she told a caller, “Yesterday, you know, I saw Dr. Hays driving down Monterey Street behind his team of matched white horses....”  

Lynne Landwehr © 2000

HaysAndGrandAvenue.jpg (13133 bytes)
HaysSiteNearCalPoly.jpg (22138 bytes)
Hillside near Hays Street/California Boulevard
intersection, approximate location of home
of Dr. Hays in his later years.

Click here to continue to Part II of the Medical History


 Sources for this Presentation

Angel, Myron.  History of San Luis Obispo County.  Fresno: Thompson & West, 1883; reprinted by Valley Publishers, Fresno, 1979.

Brewer, William H.  Up and Down California in 1860-1864.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966.

Kieffer, Paula, assisted by William Hays Ballard.  “William Williams Hays: A Personal Search.”  Private typescript, Silver Spring, Maryland, 1977, on file with the San Luis Obispo County Historical Society and Museum.

Nightingale, Florence.  Notes on Nursing: What It Is, and What It Is Not.  New York: Dover Books, 1969. [First printed in 1860.]

Paulding, Ruth.  The Gallant Lady.  Arroyo Grande: Hubbard Printing, 1981, 1984.

San Luis Obispo Tribune, selected editions
            from the 1870s-1890s.

Young, Naomi B.  “The History and Development of San Luis Obispo County Hospital System, 1874-1970.”  Private typescript, San Luis Obispo, 1971.



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