Dr. Simon Brumbaugh gives the Lemon Grove Historical Society a “house call” on history.
A warm fireplace and affectionate smiles welcomed Dr. Simon Brumbaugh at Lemon Grove’s beautiful H. Lee House Cultural Center on Thursday night. Brumbaugh started the evening with a joke about a girl that teased him about his name when he was younger, and had the crowd laughing and crying through the evening.
Brumbaugh started practice in 1952, and retired at age 65. He still worked two half-days a week after retirement, and now, at age 86, still conducts recruit physicals downtown for the military. Like his father before him, he still made house calls when he was working as a family physician.
Brumbaugh said he came from long way from his family’s origins in Pennsylvania. He first saw San Diego in 1944, after he joined the U.S. Navy.
“I wrote home and told my parents I didn’t like San Diego,” he said. “It was the Norfolk, Virginia of the west coast. All there were was sailors, and you all know in Norfolk there were signs in yards that said, ‘Dogs and sailors, stay off the grass.’”
After the Navy, in 1946, he went back to college for pre-med studies. At that time, his mother was ill and was advised to move to a better climate. Over Christmas break, he drove his parents to Phoenix. The city had no transportation in place for him to commute to college, so they traveled further and landed in San Diego. He said that his father wrote him later telling him they were purchasing two-an-a-half acres of land in this little town called Lemon Grove and would be coming back to sell the family home and move out West permanently.
“I was so excited, I called my sister, and later that night I read it to my dormitory roommates,” said Brumbaugh. “I turned the letter over and told them, whatever you do, don’t tell this to anyone in our hometown.”
He went home for the weekend and one of his father’s patients said, “Simon, I hear your father just bought a lemon grove in California.”
“That was a mistake,” said Brumbaugh.
He said when his father went back to Pennsylvania to sell the house and settle his medical practice that he had a lot of bucks owed on the books. “But no one paid him,” he said. “They knew he was rich because he had just bought a lemon grove.”
Brumbaugh finished pre-med in 1947 at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. He traveled between Philadelphia and San Diego, also taking classes at San Diego State University in the summertime.
“I spent four years in Philadelphia and three summers here,” he said. “I asked myself, why am I going back to Philadelphia?”
His final decision to move to San Diego came when he was looking for internships. In Philadelphia, hospital internships were unpaid. “I looked up San Diego County hospital and they were paying $69 a month!” he said. “So I decided, I better come to San Diego.”
Brumbaugh said he met a girl named Mary Lou at a Halloween party in Philadelphia in 1949. They dated and became very good friends. While staying the summer in San Diego he got a letter from Mary Lou saying she was going to the beach with some other guy.
“I told my mother, I think I need to fly back to Philadelphia,” he said. “My mother gave me her diamond engagement ring, in case I wanted it.”
Brumbaugh said they could not announce their engagement until Mary Lou finished her nursing training. Marriage was prohibited in nursing training schools in those days. After her training, they announced their engagement and she went to work for $175 a month.
“She said I married her for her money,” Brumbaugh said.
They married in December 1950.They drove to California and he started his internship with San Diego County Hospital. Mary Lou was hired and paid $232 a month.
Brumbaugh said his mother’s doctor, Dr. Wesley Herbert, offered him a job, but needed someone immediately. Brumbaugh had too much internship time left before getting his medical license and thought that working in Lemon Grove was a chance gone by.
After his internship, Brumbaugh worked in Julian, Ramona, Clairemont and Imperial Beach, before Herbert asked him again to work in Lemon Grove. It was 1957.
“I finally received my medical license by Railway Express on July 4,” he said. “And Dr. Herbert left the following day for a 30-day vacation. Here I was, right out of internship, in a new office, a new town. He told me, ‘ The nurse knows what to do and the lab tech knows what to do, so you’ll be all right.’”
Brumbaugh said in those days they were charging $4 for an office visit and $1 for a shot.
Herbert’s main hospital was Paradise Valley. Brumbaugh got on the staff of Mercy Hospital and two little hospitals downtown, Quintard and Balboa (not Navy), and a little converted hotel in La Mesa called La Mesa Community Hospital.
Herbert and Brumbaugh expanded to a 13-doctor office, and built Lemon Grove’s first medical building, which today is City Hall and the Sheriff’s substation. They later expanded their office and moved to newly-developing Rancho San Diego.
Overhead on the business side was so high, that six younger specialists decided to leave the practice. “So, the six young guys left and left us six old guys working two offices,” he said. “It was then that the practice was removed from Lemon Grove.”
Brumbaugh said many patients followed him. The city bought the building to use for city hall and the sheriff’s department. Shortly afterward, Scripps Clinic bought their thriving practice and made it their east county clinic.
Brumbaugh had many tales of his years of working in Lemon Grove.
He told a story of a young man from Helix High School with a broken ankle. He said he put a cast on it, but the young man wanted to walk on it, so he put a walking heel on the cast and told him to take it easy and to come back next week.
“When he came back the next week the cast was shattered. So I doubled up the plaster and made a bigger cast and he came back the next week and it was shattered again,” he said.
He said he put on the strongest casting material available at the time, supposedly having the strength of rock, he came back and the cast was shattered again. Brumbaugh asked his patient, “Dennis, what have you been doing to these casts?”
Dennis told him that he was rehearsing at the Old Globe Theater every night and he had to jump off a platform.
It was actor Dennis Hopper.
In his early years of internship and practice, Brumbaugh dealt with the polio epidemic in the early 50s. He talked about the ward of iron lungs at San Diego County, where all polio patients went. He and his wife were part of the massive effort to get people vaccinated when Jonas Salk discovered the polio vaccine.
Brumbaugh also spoke about his father, who grew up on a farm and was a doctor in Pennsylvania. His father graduated from medical school in 1910, but never practiced medicine in California. Instead, he worked on his property in Lemon Grove, planting fruit trees, growing strawberries and raising parakeets.
“He was a real horse and buggy doctor,” Brumbaugh said of his father. “My mother always told me he would go out into town and have to return home and change horses, because the horse was too tired. He delivered about three thousand babies in homes.”
Brumbaugh built his home next to his father’s house in Lemon Grove. The family has seven daughters, seven granddaughters and seven grandsons.
“ You delivered my son in 1965,” said Loretta Kennison, Lemon Grove resident since 1946. “I offered to trade him for one of your girls, because I already had a son. It didn’t work out.”
One of Brumbaugh’s daughters, Jo Ann Zawacki of La Mesa, followed in her mother’s footprints and has been a nurse since 1977; she is currently the orthopedic nurse specialist at Sharp Coronado Hospital. She said what she remembered most from her father’s medical practice was the “unusual patient.”
“We had a dog, it got hit by a car and broke its leg and my father said okay, let’s take him down to the office,” she said. “We would go to the office, X-ray the dog, put a plaster cast on its leg, and bring him back home.”
“I never told Herbert that,” said Brumbaugh.
Dona Lynn Clabby, a Lemon Grove resident since 1955, said Brumbaugh represents the family, and the family structure of what Lemon Grove was like during that time.
“I know why you stand so tall and straight,” said Clabby. “You are a happy man.”
Brumbaugh said, “Well as you can see, I am surrounded by a happy family.”
Helen Ofield of the Lemon Grove Historical Society said she was very excited about having the “doctor in the house” and was astonished by the amazingly full house. The Lemon Grove Historical Society is one of the sponsors of the free “History Alive” lecture series.