Early Days of the San Francisco Emergency Service: From the Police Infirmary to Mission Emergency

This is a guest post by Griffin Burgess, ZSFG Archivist.

The first San Francisco City and County Hospital located on Potrero Avenue was completed in 1872, but it was far from the city center and difficult to get to, which made it less than ideal for emergency cases.

At the time, City Hall housed the police prison, which included an infirmary. This infirmary always had a physician present, so the police and the public became used to using the prison infirmary for emergencies. In 1877, the city formally changed the prison infirmary to the Receiving Hospital and put the Department of Public Health in charge of it.

While the Receiving Hospital provided emergency care to anyone who needed it and played an important role in providing care to the people of San Francisco, the city had no ambulances. To help with this, the police department purchased Chicago-style police patrol wagons, which could carry a stretcher and transport the sick or injured.

In 1893, The World Columbian Exposition and Fair was held in Chicago, Illinois. The new publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle, Michael de Young, attended the fair and saw the working display of the new Studebaker horse-drawn ambulance. When the fair that he organized in San Francisco the next year needed an ambulance, he sent away for a Studebaker ambulance to serve the fair’s hospital.

The first San Francisco ambulance in front of Park Emergency Hospital on Stanyan Street, circa 1910.

After the fair, the Studebaker sat in a warehouse until two members of a women’s society group, Theresa Fair Oelrichs and her sister Virginia Fair, bought it and donated it to the Receiving Hospital. It was up to the city to buy the horses, which was done after a bit of politicking.

The director of the Receiving Hospital, Dr. George Somers, insisted that the ambulance be staffed by interns so that medical care could be provided immediately and en route to the hospital, a unique idea at the time. The ambulances were staffed by male nurses until WWII, when former medical corpsmen began working ambulances. Paramedics were introduced in 1973.

Ambulance in front of the temporary Central Emergency, built after the 1906 earthquake. From left to right: James O’Dea, Annie Andrew, Dr. Fred Zumwalt, Theresa Gile, Charles Bucher RN, William Sullivan, John Thoma (in ambulance).

The 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed much of the city, including City Hall and the Receiving Hospital located in its basement.  A new, temporary Central Emergency building in Jefferson Square on Golden Gate Avenue was the first structure completed after the quake.

Ambulance in front of the temporary Mission Emergency building at 23rd St. and Potrero Ave. Circa 1915.

The first Mission Emergency opened in 1909 at 23rd and Potrero. It was later demolished when the red brick San Francisco City and County Hospital was completed and the new Mission Emergency at 22nd and Potrero was opened in 1917.

In 1912, the Emergency Service received its first automobile ambulance. It was stationed at Park Emergency Hospital so that drivers, who until then had only driven horse-drawn ambulances, could learn to operate it on the relatively empty roads of Golden Gate Park.

Ambulance beside Mission Emergency at 22nd and Potrero Ave, completed in 1917. Photo circa 1920.

Not all of the drivers adjusted well to the switch to automobiles, however. “One of the Park Emergency ambulance drivers eventually required transfer to another City department. On his transfer orders, the hospital’s surgeon wrote, ‘… after numerous attempts to convince him to the contrary, this driver still persists in trying to stop the automobile ambulance by pulling back on the steering wheel as hard as he can and screaming at the top of his lungs, ‘Woooh there!’ I feel he is better suited for a department that still uses horses.'” (From Catastrophes, Epidemics and Neglected Diseases by F. William Blaisdell and Moses Grossman, page 134).

Ambulance at Central Emergency Hospital, circa 1930s.

The new City and County Hospital was one of the most modern complexes in the country and Mission Emergency soon became the hospital best equipped to care for the severely sick and injured, with updated operating rooms, staff, and equipment. By the end of the 1930s, all of the city’s ambulances were taking emergency cases to Mission Emergency rather than the Central Emergency hospital in Civic Center.

New Accessions Spotlight (or My Cluttered Desk)

It’s been a busy start to spring here at UCSF A&SC: new events and exhibits coming up, lots of researchers, and of course many new collections. As is prone to happen during times like these, there is a pile of new materials sitting on my desk, just waiting for me to enter into our database and (eventually) our library catalog. Here are a few that I am particularly excited about:

Clark Sturges papers (MSS 2017-09)

Just in time for the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, we recently were given the papers of Clark Sturges that relate to his profile of Dr. David E. Smith. Smith founded the Haight Ashbury Free Medical Clinic in 1967 in response to the medical needs of many of the young people who came to San Francisco during the Summer of Love. Sturges completed the book in 1993, and the papers are composed mainly of taped interviews, research notes, and correspondence.

Steven Deeks papers (MSS 2017-10)

Another recent acquisition is the papers of Dr. Steven Deeks. The Deeks papers are primarily concerned with his involvement in the controversial baboon bone marrow transplant to an AIDS patient in 1995. While the transplant was not successful, it illustrates the sense of desperation of people with AIDS at that time–and also the highly innovative approaches that UCSF and SFGH doctors and researchers were taking at that time to combat the disease.

Mark Jacobson papers (MSS 2017-12)

Finally, another collection that recently found its way to my desk is the papers of Dr. Mark Jacobson. The Jacobson papers are a hodgepodge of different materials, including calendars, index cards with patient symptoms and medication, a multitude of electronic records (including his PalmPilot), and this Triomune 30 box, which he picked up on a trip overseas. Dr. Jacobson also gave us a substantial number of books for our burgeoning AIDS History collection, and recently wrote a novel based upon his experiences that mentions the patient index cards in its foreword.

Kezar Stadium: The Original Home of Professional Football in the Bay Area

Before there was Levi’s Stadium, there was Candlestick Park—and before there was Candlestick, there was Kezar Stadium. In light of the Super Bowl 50 festivities happening on the Embarcadero right now—celebrating a game some 40 miles south of the city—it is good to remember that the original home to both of the Bay Area’s professional football teams is less than five blocks away from UCSF Parnassus.


UCSF aerial, 1959. Kezar in top right corner.

Built in 1924-1925, Kezar first served as a multi-purpose stadium hosting a myriad of sports, ranging from track and field to soccer to cricket. After the San Francisco 49ers inaugural season in 1946, the facility became primarily a football stadium, staging games for the next 25 years, including the Oakland Raiders first four home games in 1960. Though never home to a Super Bowl, Kezar did host two NFL conference championships, including the 49ers last home game there on January 3, 1971 against the Dallas Cowboys.

UCSF aerial, 1938. Kezar to left of frame.

UCSF aerial, 1938. Kezar to left of frame.

UCSF aerial, circa 1955. Kezar in foreground.

UCSF aerial, circa 1955. Kezar in foreground.

In addition to football and other sports, Kezar stadium presented many other concerts and events, and had a memorable role as the home and workplace of the Scorpio killer in the first Dirty Harry movie. It was torn down in 1989, prior to the Loma Prieta earthquake, and rebuilt in its current incarnation as a much smaller, 10,000 seat venue (some 50,000 seats smaller than its original capacity of 59,942). It was recently renovated, and now features 1,000 seats from Candlestick Park.

UCSF aerial, 1969. Kezar at top left.

UCSF aerial, 1969. Kezar at top left.