“It Is An Eminently Cheerful Region”: A Discussion of Southern California’s Climate and “Sanitary Conditions” in “The Medical Record,” 30 October 1886

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As greater Los Angeles underwent a tremendous period of growth during the “Boom of the Eighties” lasting for a couple of years from 1886 to 1888, among the most heavily promoted aspects of the region was its nearly peerless climate and the effects it had on health. In fact, this period is often referred to as one in which “health-seekers” flocked to the area to take advantage of the temperate environment with moderate temperatures, sea breezes, and other features particularly attractive to those with tuberculosis, as well as people with other ailments that were believed to be relieved by the remarkable weather.

Today’s highlighted object from the museum’s collection is the 30 October 1886 issue of The Medical Record, subtitled “A Weekly Journal of Medicine and Surgery.” The publication was established in New York in 1866 by George F. Shrady, a prominent physician who was widely known for being the personal physician of Ulysses S. Grant before the former president and Civil War general’s death in 1885.

The specific interest in the journal issue is the article “Notes on the Climatic and Sanitary Conditions of Southern California” by Dr. William M. Chamberlain, another prominent member of Gotham’s medical fraternity who read the paper to the New York Academy of Medicine on 19 October 1886. A native of New Hampshire, Chamberlain arrived in New York in the early 1850s to intern at its Charity Hospital, where he was soon chief of staff. During the Civil War, he served in several capacities, after which he was a gynecologist, while also serving as a visiting and consulting physician with Charity Hospital and as president with the city’s medical board.

The doctor was also respected as a scholar and his writing praised as filled with “exceptional facility and elegance” with papers read to medical societies considered models of their kind. His obituary from November 1887 stated that he’d been in rapidly declining health during the previous three years, so it would appear that his study of southern California was based on his own “health seeking” in our region, though the cause of death was not given. In any case, his article has a good deal of interest in it.

It began with the observation that “the increase and the diffusion of wealth, the extension of railroads, and the greatly increased comfort of travel, have made us a travelling people,” this being about as clear and concise a statement of America’s rapidly increasing social mobility as can be found. Chamberlain added that “for pleasure or for health, a great multitude are moving in all directions over our vast territory” and that “fine hotels and sanitaria are multiplying at an equal rate.”

After giving some examples in other parts of the country, he noted that “notably within the last few years this tide of travel has turned toward California, and during the last winter the southern part of that State was fairly inundated by it.” He cited the fact that the Southern Pacific railroad recorded about 1,000 tourists a day through its Colton station as they headed west into greater Los Angeles. Obviously, with several transcontinental rail lines built or soon to be completed, migration west was going to only accelerate dramatically.

As to Los Angeles, it was stated that there was nearly a quadrupling of population, with an estimate of some 42,000 souls at the time of publication and the doctor addd that he’d spent five months in the previous winter and “travelled several hundred miles by wagon through some of its less frequented regions, and was greatly interested in the physical and social conditions there observed.” Most of the visitors he came across were from the Midwest and he cited large numbers of people coming from Chicago, Kansas City, Minneapolis/St. Paul and other urban centers in that part of the country. He added:

The motive was to escape from the long, harsh winter, from the snows and the fierce winds, and the mud, which there enforce a long imprisonment on all those of feeble vitality or impaired health.

And the general result seemed to be a delighted abandonment to the pleasures of an open-air life, amid novel and beautiful scenery, with unrestricted locomotion. The man from Winnipeg made haste to lay aside his furs on New-Year’s Day, and to roll in the breakers on the beach at Santa Monica; and the girl from Duluth delighted to ride or drive through the groves of sycamores, the avenues of eucalyptus, and the orchards of oranges.

Experienced travelers who’d been on the Italian Riviera, North Africa, Egypt, Florida and the Bahamas told Chamberlain “that here was indeed the most attractive and the most salubrious of all winter resorts.”

The doctor then reviewed the climatic element that included the vital aspect of Pacific Ocean currents, including the effects of rainfall with dramatic differences as they moved southward down the coast, including south of Point Argüello above Santa Barbara, with the effect “leaving the embayed shore of Southern California washed by the warmer waters of the subtropical sea, driven thither by almost uniform southwest winds, of little force in winter but strong in summer.”

Chamberlain discussed the Coast Range and the soil content associated with it, so that “there is little wet land, and no standing water” and “rapid and complete drainage” through porous soil meant “that there are no paludal miasmas,” this latter term meaning certain fevers or other diseases like malaria. He cited the selection of San Diego as the key military post in the region as being based on its healthful climate as well as its port facilities and potential for expansion of the latter.

He noted that the rainy season was genreally from November through May, with precipitation generally ranging from 10-22 inches and added that “from January 27th to March 6th of the present year there was no rain at Pasadena and Los Angeles.” Chamberlain continued that “from the small amount of rainfall the question of the water-supply becomes important” and he observed that “the country is fairly endowed with springs” while the use of irrigation was widespread. He also reported on the percolation of water from the mountains to aquifers in the porous plains, but, of course, the tremendous onrush of population would lead, a little more than a quarter century later to the completion of the engineering marvel that is the Los Angeles Aqueduct.

In providing a table showing the number of rainy days, those of cloudiness, amount of rainfall and mean temperature at various times of the year, Chamberlain wrote that “Los Angeles has fewer rainy days, less cloudy weather, less rainfall, [and] a much more equable temperature, closely approximating the ideal mean of sixty degrees.” He added “I esteem the comparative cloudlessness, taken in connection with the mild and equal temperature, as most significant” and went on to observe that

The long, bright day of Southern California, with unclouded sky, mild and even warmth, and gentle winds, invites the invalid to live in the open air and protects him while there.

From many sides we gather the inference that there is something in the air and soil of Southern California which nourishes, improves, and prolongs organic life to a remarkable degree.

He cited the ample growth of the eucalyptus tree and the fact that “the endurance of the Californian horse has been well known” with the good doctor testifying “I have never seen elsewhere more fresh-colored, strong-limbed, bright-eyed children.”

When it came to food, Chamberlain wrote that the supply meant that “excellent milk and butter abound, and good beef and mutton,” with ample supplies of poultry and fish. When it came to fruits, such as grapes, oranges, peaches, melons and others, they “are of the best and cheapest.” The selection of apples wasn’t so good and the doctor noted “the Eastern man, however, will miss our oysters.”

The author was very impressed with San Diego’s climate, though felt the town was underdeveloped, while he referred to Santa Barbara as “the Newport [the Rhode Island playground of the rich Easterner] of the Pacific,” though it was somewhat isolated and subject to dampness and heavy winds. Still, the latter had many charms and attractions to any who did not have “to fear a damp and somewhat windy spot.”

As for Los Angeles, it was “the geographical centre of Southern California, with no serious commercial rival nearer than San Francisco.” It did lack a good supply of water (to be remedied, of course, by the Aqueduct) and, while the homes of the well-to-do on the surround hills (such as Bunker) “are beautiful and salubrious,” Chamberlain expressed concern that “the more comact portions of the city [such as Sonoratown north of the Plaza] are liable to typhoid and zymotic disease [smallpox, cholera, diptheria and other acute infectious diseases], and the general sanitary condition has the defects which are generally found in a rapidly growing town.” The Angel City was, he noted, well supplied with churches, theaters, hospitals, and “medical men,” though there would soon be a few women physicians.

To the east is Pasadena and its environs and the doctor went into a lengthy description of its attributes including “groves of oranges, lemons, apricots, walnuts, and figs, defined by lines of tall eucalyptus, avenues of pepper-trees, hedges of cypress, and set with villas embowered in the fragrance and bloom of all sub-tropical plants and flowers.” Describing the general conditions of the San Gabriel Valley and the Sierra Madre [San Gabriel] Mountain range, Chamberlain added that “beyond the plain is the blue and shining sea, and the whole landscape has a charm of grandeur and of beauty which prolonged contemplation still increases.”

The author praised the cosmopolitan character of the residents of the Pasadena area and noted the good library, sanitaria, and “the pictureque villa—Sierra Madre Hotel,” which has long possessed an excellent reputation and custom.” Presumably, Chamberlain spent part of his sojourn at that foothill resort. Newly constructed was the Raymond Hotel, which “in location, construction, and appointments it is very superior.” In all, he concluded, “In my judgment Pasadena is the point of election for, by far, the larger number of invalids. Especially do the conditions before enumerated fit it for all casees of renal disease, all cases of pulmonary trouble attended with free secretion, for enteric, rheumatic, and neuralgic affections.”

Yet, Chamberlain, who died the following year, was sure to caution that for many people with health issues, staying at home for recovery was still preferred because of its comforts and “social and moral support,” and people with acute conditions or well along in the course of a disease “should not undertake a long journey, except under sufficient medical advice.” He wished to write more of mineral springs and baths, which were not developed, but could compare favoably with those in New York and Virginia. He also mentioned “beautiful Riverside . . . the theatre of most successful orange culture and of a highly advanced social order,” though it could be windy and have a high vaiation of temperature for invalids.

The piece concluded with:

In these days of mind-cure, faith-cure, and subjective medication generally, one of the best things that can be said of Southern California is that it is an eminently cheerful region. Nostalgia and hypochondria cannot well continue there; there is too much enterprise, too much pleasure abroad. I have never seen so many content people so far away from home.

It is common among the older residents to speak of it as “God’s Country,” which may sometimes be a way of complimenting the Elysian climate and the bountiful soil, but is oftener, I think, a more serious recognition of the Power and the Light which builds and adorns the Cosmos.

“Which wields the world with never-varying love,

Sustains it from beneath[,] and kindles it above.”

This last quote is from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous 1821 poem Adonais, an elegy on another great Romantic poet, John Keats, and it is interesting that this eminent physician, scientifically examining the qualities of greater Los Angeles’ climate and sanitary environment would end his analysis with something so ephemeral, ethereal and spiritual a reference.

Chamberlain’s article is interesting for its analysis of our region as the Boom of the Eighties was entering its peak stage and its value for those seeking a “health cure” due to the increase in the standard of living, in ease of transportation, and opportunities and accommodations for visitors, whether tourists, actual or potential residents, and health-seekers.

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