Times Past: Personality clash makes history

Special to The TribuneJune 16, 2012 

Great historical events are often shaped by personality clashes. Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote a remarkable account of how Abraham Lincoln was largely able to reconcile conflicting personalities within his own Cabinet to abolish slavery and win the Civil War.

Such personal disputes aren’t always resolved so fortuitously.

Maryland-born, Georgetown medical college graduate Dr. William Williams Hays served as a surgeon in Lincoln’s army. His sympathies for the Union cause were torn by his 1862 marriage to Sarah Susan Parks, a Virginian.

To reconcile this conflict, Dr. Hays asked that he be transferred to the Pacific Coast. The couple moved to the San Francisco Presidio, far removed from the bloody battles in the southeastern states.

At the end of the war, Hays decided to remain in California. He had probably contracted tuberculosis while serving in the wretched field hospitals in Washington, D.C. He needed a good climate for his lungs.

Thanks to the introduction of dairy cattle in 1865, the once drought-stricken pueblo of San Luis Obispo was experiencing a boom. Dr. Hays became the town’s first permanent physician, practicing here almost to the moment of his death in 1901.

He served as the elected coroner for the county, was active in the state medical society and led a crusade for a clean water system. He also established the first public health care system in our region.

He was a great advocate of medical professionalism. He became angry at the mere mention of any alternative medicine. The Native Americans had their traditional shaman. The missionized Indians took their illness to padres such as Father Luis Martinez, who had herbal gardens. Later the practice of yerbero was carried out by a señora or abuela (older woman or grandmother) who knew the proper formulation of herbal cures.

The curandero total or “total healer” movement did not come up from Mexico until the 1900s, but Chinese merchant Ah Louis filled this role for the nearly 800 Chinese and many others from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds from the mid-1870s until his death in 1936.

Liz and I interviewed a number of residents still alive in the late 1970s and 80s who claimed they received healing herbs from Ah Louis.

These “nonlicensed” practitioners were the bane of Dr. Hays’ life.

Dr. Hays’ religious affiliation was one of the keystones of his life. The first Episcopal Sunday School classes were held in the Hays home on Monterey Street. He helped select the site of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, at Pismo and Nipomo Streets, and served as a warden there for the remainder of his life.

Presumably, the Rev. Robert Summers, the newly appointed pastor of St. Stephens in 1881, would have met with Dr. Hays’ full approval. Hays might also have approved of Summers’ interest in Native American archaeology. He had his own hobbies and was an amateur meteorologist throughout his life.

The clash came when Hays discovered that both Robert and Lucia Summers were receiving stipends from grateful patients for medical advice and botanical remedies.

A single-page letter dated Aug. 5, 1948, from G. Ward Kemp, who had run a law office in San Luis Obispo in the 1890s and was a close friend of the Summers’, attests to what happened. Kemp even refers to Summers as “Dr.”

Summers was obliged to resign as pastor of St. Stephens in 1884. He became the first city librarian in 1894, and he remained in San Luis Obispo until his death. But his large collection of Native American artifacts never went into a local or regional museum.

Instead, Summers turned them over to his friend, the Rev. Selwyn Freer, who was to transfer them to the ethnography department of the British Museum in Burlington Gardens, London.

The records show that the seven recently repatriated Native American skulls were a part of this collection.

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