Health Champion

Gentry recalls the life and times of medical pioneer Dr. Harold D. Chope.

  • Category
    Health, People
  • Photographs courtesy of
    MS&SB Collection
  • Above
    San Mateo County Health Director,
    Dr. Harold D. Chope served from 1948-1970.

When Dr. Harold D. Chope became San Mateo County Health Director in 1948, colleagues didn’t know whether to congratulate him or commiserate with him.

San Mateo County Hospital in Beresford as it appeared after construction in the mid-1920s.
The “pest house” for patients with communicable diseases is off to the left.

Unquestionably he possessed all the necessary credentials. He held a medical degree from Stanford University Medical School (1931) and both a master’s (1933) and doctorate in public health (1940) from Harvard Medical School. A study of his vita showed that he’d taught public health at both Stanford and Harvard.

While a medical student at Stanford, at age 26, then working in the science laboratory, Chope had contracted a deadly lung infection that physicians predicted would result in his death. Chope’s story was featured in national newspapers and magazines including American Weekly that referred to the doctor as “a young investigator facing imminent death…soon to become a martyr of science.” But Chope recovered. During the 1940s, while working and studying in Brazil, he assisted in the opening of a 1,200-bed public health hospital.

Chope’s appointment as San Mateo County Health Director had been preceded by, for that era, an unprecedented search that extended into 19 different states. Scores of candidates were rejected. Examinations were given to 19 of the applicants. Twelve candidates received interviews.

The search committee focused on Chope, a Californian born in King City in 1904. The San Mateo Board of Supervisors was unanimous. Dr. Chope was their man. Members believed him to be the much-needed cure for the county’s medical woes and felt he would succeed where others had failed.

The county’s medical history, before the arrival of Chope, reads like a scandal sheet. State inspectors visiting the county as early as 1918 found conditions at the rickety two-story wood hospital grossly inadequate. Rightfully so, residents were outraged. This was an era when the hospital was still fully associated and connected to the San Mateo County Poor Farm (later known as the Relief Home), a welfare institution created as a haven for the unemployed and unemployable. Early on, accrediting inspectors determined that the health and welfare facilities, built in 1876 in the hills of unincorporated Belmont six miles from downtown San Mateo, constituted a dangerous firetrap. The County Hospital and Poor Farm opened without ceremony; few on the Peninsula, even three decades later, knew that the health and welfare institutions even existed.

Dr. Chope visiting a patient’s room in 1965. During the early years, nurses lived in quarters adjacent to the hospital.

Nurses ran the hospital. There was no resident physician, although one was always on call. Badly ventilated wards were poorly lighted with candles and lanterns. Dining facilities were often unclean. The so-called obstetrics ward was inadequate and “filthy.” Bedding throughout the hospital was changed once a week. There were two toilets in the facility and neither was connected with water. A barrel of water was placed daily next to each. Patients using the facility were asked to pour in a ladle of water after every use. Buildings weren’t wired for electricity until 1924. In the age of the automobile, sheriff’s deputies were ordered to be on the lookout for “fresh road kill” which was to be picked up and delivered to the hospital. Dr. W. H. Kellogg, representing the California Department of Public Health, declared the hospital “should be condemned for use by human beings.”

The report seemed to shake and embarrass more fortunate area residents who took pride in living in a prosperous county. Not long after publication of this report, humiliated supervisors authorized the purchase of 22 acres in Beresford (a village south of San Mateo). The cornerstone for a new 89-bed hospital was laid the following year. It was to be located between 37th and 38th avenues, Edison and Hacienda streets.

Although the new facility was not yet complete, patients from the old hospital were moved in September 1923. While “clean and simple” and medical personnel provided the best possible care regardless of a patient’s ability to pay, almost from the start, the new hospital became a “cesspool of political intrigue.” Medical personnel, a few with questionable credentials, constantly bickered with one another. For county officials, the mere presence of the hospital became an ongoing embarrassment.

Dr. Charles Gans served as the County Health Director during the 1930s. He infuriated doctors who insisted he was more politician than physician. He was fired over a credential dispute.

One health director, Dr. Harold Morrison, hired in 1933, was fired after just 72 days. He barricaded himself in office, refusing to leave. The sheriff was summoned but there was a yearlong standoff.

Another director was Dr. Charles Gans, appointed in spite of the opposition of the county medical society. Unquestionably he was more politician than physician; Gans continually annoyed doctors employed by him. Physician Alan Benner, for a brief period medical superintendent, requested essential improvements in 1938. He became infuriated and abruptly resigned when Gans curtly informed him never to request anything for the hospital during an election year. Gans then replaced Benner with Dr. H.W. S. Hayes.

Supervisors, awakening to the grimy situation, began to sniff around more carefully. After a check of hospital personnel, two physicians were forced to resign when it was learned that neither possessed medical licenses. Further investigation also revealed, to the embarrassment of supervisors, that neither Gans nor Hayes had licenses to practice in California. They were summarily fired.

It was in this volatile setting that the County Board of Supervisors launched the search that ultimately led to the appointment of Dr. Harold D. Chope in 1948.

Enthusiasm for Chope, despite the widespread search, was far from unanimous. Opposition from the medical community was immediate. “Cantankerous” was the word perhaps most often used to describe him. Some physicians noted that the nervous, chain-smoking Chope was “pushy and arrogant” in addition to having a reputation as an annoying micro-manager.

County Hospital in the 1950s

But, while all of this apparently was true, it was quickly learned that, as an administrator, Chope surrounded himself with intelligent capable doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel with innovative ideas.

After Chope began negotiations with the Stanford University Medical School, the university provided resident physicians to the San Mateo hospital, assuring a constant influx of the latest, most up-to-date medical ideas and techniques. Dr. James Bodie, a chest specialist hired by Chope, looked beyond the boss’s irascible personality, noting that the health director was an outstanding judge of people. Medical professionals consistently hired by him, said Bodie, “were always topnotch and made Chope look good.”

The new health director pioneered innovative programs dealing with chronic alcoholism, a major problem in the county. Moreover, local residents with mental health problems were typically brought to the county hospital. Dr. Chope rattled many county officials as well as medical personnel when he introduced the concept of “unlocked psychiatric wards.”

He justified this revolutionary idea, stating that, if locked up and treated like prisoners, patients would grow worse rather than better. Chope’s success in care and treatment of people with mental problems soon provided a new nationwide pattern for therapeutic care.

By the early 1950s, Chope found himself in a medical war against the horrors of infantile paralysis, as polio swept the nation, paralyzing and killing thousands. The insidious disease spread so rapidly and indiscriminately that many private hospitals refused to admit patients diagnosed with polio.

San Mateo Community Hospital (as the county medical facility was then officially called) was the only hospital on the San Francisco Peninsula willing to except and treat patients afflicted with this highly contagious and often crippling disease.

Dr. Harold D. Chope (right) in 1964 receiving one of numerous awards he was given for innovative and distinguished service.

Iron lungs (huge tanks created to hold an entire body except for the head, allowing totally paralyzed patients to breathe as pressure within the tank increased and decreased providing artificial respiration) lined hospitals corridors. In that terrifying era, the county hospital often cared for as many as 50 polio patients simultaneously, the vast majority of whom were children.

Repeatedly, the county’s leaders announced a determination to “get out of the hospital business.”Although battling political forces continued to impede on the operation of the hospital with constant threats of closure, Chope managed to bring the public health and welfare system in San Mateo County out of the Dark Ages and into the 20th century.

His dedication and often-innovative techniques, although not infrequently controversial, slowly became well-known and gradually accepted throughout the world. Between 1955 and 1970, he was also Clinical Professor of Preventive Medicine at Stanford University.

In later years, while often uncomfortable with the positive recognition, Chope found himself something of a national medical celebrity. He chaired numerous local, state, and even national committees, and wrote and published scores of articles for medical journals.

Still cantankerous and sometimes pushy, Chope retired as Health Director in 1970. Grateful supervisors, overwhelmingly supported by the general public, voted to change the name of San Mateo Community Hospital to Harold D. Chope Community Hospital. And so it remained until 1989.

But then, much to the dissatisfaction of those who still lionized Chope, claims were made that the name “Chope” on the hospital had created public confusion. Some county residents had come to believe that Chope Hospital was a private institution. The name was again altered to San Mateo County General Hospital. Early in the 21st century, that name too was scrapped when it became the San Mateo County Health Center.

Ironically, today, longtime residents still refer to the county hospital simply as “Chope.”

Harold D. Chope passed away in 1976.

Historians Michael Svanevik and Shirley Burgett may be reached by mail at 3182 Campus Drive, No. 442, San Mateo 94403.

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