“Climate and Health Resorts of California” in The Journal of the American Medical Association, 29 October 1887

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The remarkable (“salubrious” is a common 19th century adjective that comes to mind) climate of greater Los Angeles was and remains an allure for migrants to the region.  By the time the area’s first sustained growth period was launched in the late 1860s through the mid-1870s, some people from the eastern parts of the United States were aware of the advantages the region possessed.

It was, however, the completion of a direct transcontinental railroad route to Los Angeles by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe in 1885 that opened the floodgates to a much larger period of growth, the famed Boom of the Eighties.  While immigrants flocked to the area to buy farms and orchards or live in the city, there were quite a few who came out for the betterment of the health.


These “health seekers” often came to the growing number of sanitariums that sprung up in the area, some in Los Angeles and others in the suburbs, including the foothill communities below the San Gabriel like Monrovia.  So, it is not surprising to find an article on “Climate and Health Resorts of California” in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association at the heart of the boom in the journal’s issue, dated 29 October 1887 and of which a copy is in the Homestead’s collection.

The author was J.W. Robertson, then the assistant physician and a pathologist at the state “insane asylum” at Napa.  Robertson, being a northern California resident, devoted more space in his article to that part of the state, but he did discuss the southern California region, as well.  He began his piece with the observation that it was only recently that the state was noticed by “sanitarians” and attributed the lack of attention in the past to the obssession with the search for gold and the disinterest in the coastal regions.

Robertson added:

Southern California, where now bloom perennial orange groves and the rarest exotics, they [residents and visitors of earlier years] pronounced a desert scarcely able to support a meagre growth of sage brush and cactus, a fit habitation for the coyote and the squalid Troglodyte.  Only recently has the fact been borne in mind that something is to be found more precious than gold, and from all over the world thousands of invalids flock here.

The doctor went on to add that those who did come were unaware of the varied climates (Alpine and tropical were mentioned by him) that could address virtually any disease and that “numerous mineral springs which equal in value and are more healthfully situated than are those of the Eastern United States or Europe” were also in abundance.


Yet, it was difficult for “health seekers” to make good, informed decisions in the face of that fact that “every town, every mineral spring, every sea-side resort, so loudly and so persistently bids for their countenance” while “so little reliable information outside of interested statements” could be found..

Robertson addressed the climatic characteristics of the state, singling out “that portion of California which has obtained the greatest reputation, which has filled the eyes of strngers with visions of a land where the orange and the vine flourish” and “where nature has so blended her charms as to hush the murmurings of the most fastidious invalid”—namely, the coastal areas.


When it came to the areas south of Point Conception, with variance in warmer currents and winds, the doctor continued, “certain portions of Southern California possess a climate in its way unapproachable and not to be rivalled the whole world over.”  He noted that “so loudly, so ably and with such justice have its praises been heralded that to add were useless.”  He went on:

It is this region that first attracted the attention of sanitarians and gave California its greatest climactic reputation.  Even now the majority of invalids look to Los Angeles as to a new Mecca, and with every increasing wonder behold the mighty changes wrought by the hand of man, which for once have far outrivaled nature even in her most lavish mood.  This climate speaks so strongly for itself, it is so mild and delightful that the most cariling [caviling] cannot find fault and the invalid susceptible to the slightest chill, utters no complaint.

Still, being from the northern part of the state, Robertson devoted more attention to those areas in that region that were excellent for health resorts or sanitariums and which abounded in mineral springs that were of value to the invalid.  Particularly of focus was Lake County, with its plethora of springs and growing number of resorts.


The doctor acknowledged the existence of many springs in places like San Diego County, but, he added, “not having visited all these springs . . . I can only approximate the situation of certain ones.”   Robertson did mention Fulton Wells which “obtained a high reputation” and we know this locality today as Santa Fe Springs.

San Diego, he went on, had more moderate temperatures than Los Angeles, but is directly on the ocean “and is more exposed to winds than Los Aneles, for which reason many prefer the inland city.”  Temperature charts for the year 1886 include readings at eight locations in California, from Cape Mendocino to Yuma (in Arizona but on the border at the Colorado River with California) and listings for the two cities show the moderate range.

Speaking particularly of those with consumption or tuberculosis, Robertson noted that “the great majority of those coming to Southern California are of this class” because of the climate, but he warned that “whether they derive any benefit outside of the hopes engendered and the exercise they undergo in their flight from death, I cannot say.”


This was because the underlying infection of the lungs was not yet understood enough, but he noted that “a germicide and not a climate is essential for a cure” if the bacillus causing the problem was a cause of lung damage.  He felt otherwise if the disease was inherited, but went on to say that “many come to California in the last stages and only reach it to die among strangers.”  Still, “when the advice of the physician is overruled and they must choose some climate, that region south of Santa Barbara should be selected,” especially for those in the early stages of the disease.

Robertson continued that, while there were many health resorts on the coast and interior valleys, “for those incipient consumptives who are fond of sport and for whom an outdoor life is desirable, certain portions of the mountain belt are to be recommended.”  At elevations higher than 3,000 feet above sea level, high heat lessened and the combination of “mountain scenery, a desirable elevation, dryness, mountain temperature, and a pure atmosphere impregnated with the balsamic emanations of the pine and fir trees” were all considered useful.

There was also some thought that “germs do not readily develop in higher altitudes” and thereby “would be a plausible explanation” for seeking mountain climes to deal with consumption.  Those with the malady were expressly warned against using mineral springs.  The doctor also opined that the coast of California precluded the existence of germs as found in other areas and that, excepting in large cities, “endemic and epidemic diseases were unknown.”  Finally, he claimed “the wind undoubtedly acts as a germicide.”


Five doctors submitted responses to Robertson’s article.  Dr. J.M. Allan of Liberty, Missouri addressed the question of the bacillus in tuberculosis in a temperate climate, such as found in much of California, and stated that in some areas “fresh beef may be hung out in the open air for weeks (without salt) and no putrefaction occur.”  Dr. A.N. Bell of New York identified “dirty soil-moisture” as a major problem, given estimates that only a quarter of tuberculosis cases were hereditary.  He also differentiated between ocean and coast atmospheres in terms of the prevalence of the disease.

Dr. J.F. Hibberd of Richmond, Indiana, while stating he enjoyed Robertson’s paper, was disconcerted that it did not give enough specificity concerning where a physician could send a patient in California and that “we needed more definite information.”  He added the animal testing showed that dark and damp locations, regardless of the presence of tuberculosis bacili, suffered from poor health, while those in fresh air with plenty of exercise and good food, even with the bacili in their systems, more often survived.

Dr. Henry B. Baker of Lansing, Michigan observed that slighter temperature ranges seemed to be important, while Dr. Woods Hutchinson of Des Moines, Iowa highlighted the question of ocean climes, as more free of germs.  He also pointed out the value of outdoor exercise and observed that “the most effective germicide is a vigorous healthy organism” especially those in “mild, invigorating climates,” whether the sufferer had tuberculosis or malaria.


Francis W. Temple, a grandson of William and Nicolasa Workman, founders of the Homestead and then owner of the 75-acre ranch, was a consumptive and frequently sought refuge in the drier climate of Arizona because the eastern San Gabriel Valley wasn’t enough to provide relief.  Less than a year after the publication of this article, however, Temple died in the Workman House from the complications of his malady.

Given the state of medical research and knowledge, this article is very interesting for its analysis of California’s climates and the existence of health resorts, especially for those with tuberculosis, at a time when Los Angeles was undergoing its significant Boom of the 1880s and attracting many invalids.

Beyond the advances in later research, it is worth pointing out that the fresh air of late 19th century greater Los Angeles was markedly transformed by the middle of the next century as the region became one of most polluted in the country.  Consequently, those seeking better climates for their health, whether it was tuberculosis, asthma or other lung-related problems, were more likely to seek out, say, areas of Arizona, Nevada or New Mexico instead!