The Journal of San Diego History
SAN DIEGO HISTORICAL SOCIETY QUARTERLY
July 1964, Volume 10, Number 3
Ray Brandes, Editor

An Early San Diego Physician: David Hoffman

By Clifford L. Graves

David Hoffman, physician and public-spirited civic leader.

A vast and sweeping panorama unfolded itself for the men aboard the little steamer as it toiled its way laboriously around Point Loma on a fine November day in 1853. "If this isn't the most beautiful sight in the world," said a handsome young man at the taffrail, "I'll go back East and start all over again."

But Dr. David Hoffman had little intention of going back East. After all, he had worked long and hard to get where he was. Born in the East, he had come the long overland trail as a boy, then worked his way through Toland Medical College in San Francisco. When he graduated he was 25, an age when most young men are impatient to start in the practice of medicine. But Dr. Hoffman was not that impatient. Ambitious and inquisitive, he wanted to see the world before it swallowed him. So he took a job as ship surgeon with the Pacific Mail Steamship Company. For the better part of two years, he saw the West Coast in all its rugged beauty. Of all the places he visited, San Diego impressed him the most. Not the town, but the setting: a gentle shoreline, a sheltered bay, a purple backdrop. What more could anybody ask for?

Dr. Hoffman's position in 1853 was not greatly different from that of any young doctor who is trying to decide where to settle, but he had less to go by because southern California was still a land of strife and Indians. In the north, Monterey was a city of some grace and charm, and San Francisco was pushing hard for status. But in the south, all was vacant and imponderable. San Diego? It looked about as inviting as Tecate does today. With its dusty streets and straggling adobes, its motley people and lazy pace, the town could boast only of its matchless natural setting. It was this natural setting that had compelled the young doctor from the time it first confronted him.

While Dr. Hoffman was thus engaged, the shoreline drew close. In those days, ships anchored at La Playa opposite what is now the Yacht Club. La Playa did not have a dock, and the doctor had to be put ashore by longboat. As soon as he made his landfall, he had a closer look. What he saw was three small buildings and nothing else. The first one was the Gardiner and Bleecker store, completely deserted. The second one was the customs house, totally dormant. The third one was the Ocean House, half awake. At least, a wisp of smoke rose slowly from the chimney. Dr. Hoffman picked up his valise, crossed the tidal flat, and walked through the door. A sickening odor of stale fish and stale tobacco almost knocked him flat. He steadied himself, retreated, and circled the building. In the backyard, he found the keeper of the house. This was old Donohoe, a man of vast proportions and even vaster prolixity.

"I am Dr. Hoffman from San Francisco."

"A doctor? You mean a real doctor?"

"Certainly. Don't I look like one?" Dr. Hoffman was chagrined that he did not make a greater impression.

The ice was broken. Donohoe led his visitor inside, poured him a drink, and started to give him the news. The Indians had threatened the Presidio, and the Mexicans were fighting at Ensenada. Dr. Hoffman listened politely but impatiently. He did not care about Ensenada. He wanted to see San Diego. But San Diego was three miles away, at what is now Old Town.

"How do I get there?" he inquired cautiously.

"Jump in," said Donohoe, pointing at the buckboard.

Never was an invitation accepted with more alacrity.

Old Town in 1853 consisted of about a hundred houses, mainly adobe and mostly dilapidated. Some of the houses were grouped around a plaza where dust and mud were the main hazards, depending on the season. As Dr. Hoffman jumped off the buckboard to survey the scene, he counted seven stores, four saloons, and three buildings of uncertain antecedents. The most imposing of these was the Exchange Hotel, in front of which Donohoe had stopped. The only living creature in sight was a comatose Mexican, sprawled in the doorway of the hotel.

"There's your first patient, doc," quipped Donohoe. "If you can wake him up, you've got it made."

Dr. Hoffman picked up his valise. To his great relief, it was still intact. Well might he be concerned, because this valise contained not only all his personal belongings, but also his stock in trade: the blue pills and the yellow ointment, the red elixir and the black balsam. Without these, no doctor could hope to gain a following a hundred years ago. Confident and elated, he made his way past the comatose Mexican and asked for a room. A room? He could have the whole hotel.

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

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 Ames' office, a period of about four weeks. At this point, shortly after Christmas, Ames said: "There's a room for rent next to Lyons' variety store. Why don't you think about it?" Hoffman thought about it for three seconds, and rented the room.

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 the yellow ointment, the red elixir and the black balsam. He needed more of everything, particularly smallpox vaccine because smallpox was a constant threat. Back he went to San Francisco, and back he came to San Diego. Now the Herald let it be known that Dr. Hoffman would vaccinate all and sundry, and that he would do it free of charge for those unable to afford his fee. This advertisement, which sounds remarkably like the advertisements run today by the county medical society, 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 and another, he was acting Assistant Surgeon of the garrison, head of the debating team, president of an organization promoting a road to Yuma, VicePresident 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 County Medical Society. This, in 1870 when there were ten doctors in San Diego, eight of whom signed the charter. Undismayed by the small size of his constituency, Dr. Hoffman delivered a formal address.

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 the destitute. One day, as he was crossing the plaza on his way to his office (he moved to New Town in 1869), he was accosted by a tramp for a handout. Dr. Hoffman took a close look, noticed the flushed cheeks, and diagnosed "enteric fever" (we call it typhoid today). 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.

Neither was he too busy to fall in love, marry, and raise a family. Three years after he arrived in San Diego, he met Doña Dolores Wilder, a belle from San Francisco who was visiting relatives. There followed a whirlwind courtship, a big wedding, and a sumptuous ball at the Gila House, attended by hundreds. His wife bore him two children, Chauncey and Virginia.

As acting assistant surgeon of the garrison, Dr. Hoffman was expected to write a sanitary report every year. Most medical men would have shrugged it off as another onerous task, to be gotten rid of as quickly as possible. Not Dr. Hoffman. His first sanitary report, and also the first medical article to come from San Diego, is a delightful essay on the geography, geology, flora, fauna, natives, climate, and the endemic diseases of San Diego County. Published in the San Francisco Medical Press of January 1864, the article is replete with shrewd observations and prophetic comment. He sensed that San Diego would eventually be a great metropolis, and he understood that the lack of water was the only serious handicap of the region. Here is a sample of the report:

"On geography. The harbor of San Diego is one of the safest and most commodious on the coast.

"On geology. One-fourth of San Diego County can be made valuable for agricultural and horticultural purposes by irrigation.

"On fauna. Of the animal kingdom we have a fair variety: the grizzly bear, the antelope, the deer, the polecat, the beaver, the wildcat, the otter, the fox, the badger, the hare, the squirrel, and coyotes innumerable.

"On flora. Along the coast will be found the cottonwood, willow, aspen, oak, and two or three varieties of small hardwood trees, the names of which I do not know.

"On climate. Strictly speaking, we have but two seasons, the wet and the dry. For health and pleasure, there is probably not a better climate on the globe than we enjoy.

"On the natives. After the days of the mission came an evil, greatly to the detriment of the poor Indian, and which well-nigh exterminated them. This evil was the settlement of the country over which they were used to roam without restraint. With the advent of the white race came the precursor of the dissolution of the red children of the forest in the shape of fire water and those low, revolting diseases, known only to the low, dirty dregs of society: rakes, harlots, and libertines. At the present time there are but few of them who are not either drunkards or diseased in such a way that life is but a curse to them.

"On disease. For nearly two years, the command stationed at this port has been so healthy that there has not been a natural death from disease. During this time, one man was shot for mutiny, and another was accidentally drowned while sailing a small boat in the bay.

"The primary diseases of this locality are fevers and rheumatism. Of the former, we occasionally have all of the different types; but I think from my experience that the bilious-remittent type is the more prevalent. All fevers here are of the asthenic type, and in most cases yield readily to the usual remedies."

During his twenty-five years in San Diego, Dr. Hoffman was not only the beloved physician but also the public-spirited civic leader. Possessed of a fine intellect and a deep sense of responsibility, he was imbued with the idea of making San Diego a better place to live in. In this respect, he was a missionary, a role that brought him as many trials as rewards.

His main trial was his professional isolation. Throughout his active career, San Diego remained a sleeping beauty. These were the years of tremendous medical advances: the discovery of anesthesia, the birth of surgery, the knowledge that germs cause disease. All of it bypassed him. At a time when the doors were swung wide open, Dr. Hoffman practiced a brand of medicine that differed but little from his predecessors'. News of the exciting developments trickled through, but they remained largely beyond his reach. When he read that Billroth in Berlin had removed a stomach and the patient lived, his amazement knew no bounds. That was in 1881.

But his rewards far outweighed these frustrations. If San Diego could not offer him intellectual stimulation, it did offer him full scope for his ambitions and ideals. Although today no institutions bear his name, his work is discernible in the County Medical Society, in the County Hospital, and in the image he left behind. When he died in 1888, he could say that he had left the world a little better than he found it. And that, after all, is the supreme test of any man's life.


Dr. Graves, a native of The Netherlands, came to the United States in 1924. He earned his bachelor's degree at Columbia, and his medical degree at the University of Michigan. He is a surgeon in La Jolla. Cast on Omaha Beach on D-Day in 1944, he later wrote a book, Front Line Surgeon, now out of print. He is a past editor of the Bulletin of the San Diego County Medical Society, a fellow of the American College of Surgeons, and president of the local chapter of the American Youth Hostels organization.