- 'THE FEVER OF LIFE: THE STORY OF PETER CHARLES REMONDINO"
- PETER ARNOLD OTTAVIANO MASTER’S THESIS USC, 1992
An apocryphal, none-too-flattering account clings to the legend of Dr. Peter Charles Remondino (1846-1926). He went to the home of a dying man, where the wife urged him to hurry upstairs. According to Hamilton Marston, who tells the story, “The doctor spied an esoteric volume lying on a table on his way. Never one to bypass an interesting new book, the doctor stopped to peruse it. The wife again urged him to hurry. In no time at all, Remondino had delved deeply into the book. A short time later, the wife returned and told the doctor, ‘It’s too late, he’s gone.’"
George White Marston complained that every time he wanted to consult with Remondino “for medical attention," the hyper-inquisitive doctor was “in the back country, checking out the flora and fauna." Remondino either had divided loyalties or just a problem with the Marstons.
Remondino, who liked to be called “Rem,” was born in Turin, Italy, February 10, 1846. After his mother died, in 18S4, he and his father immigrated to America, on the ship carrying the Italian marble used for Washington D.C’s capitol building. He grew up in Wabasha, Minnesota, and could speak Italian, Latin, English, French, German, and Sioux. He studied medicine at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia and served as a Union Army post surgeon, at several Virginia “posts" during the Civil War. He treated gunshot wounds and ran hospitals and an insane asylum.
In the fall of 1864, Remondino contacted malarial fever. For nine years, he looked hard for a cure. Typical of his thorough nature, Remondino read every scrap he could find on malaria. He kept reading “change of climate," so he volunteered to serve as a doctor in the French Army, during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). “He hoped that the change...would help him overcome the effects of the fever. And it did, within just two weeks, according to his memoirs.”
He served as an artillery surgeon, became a prisoner of war, and “endured the horrible French retreat, which occurred in frigid weather, with near-starvation rations.” He was one of two Americans to receive the French Military Medal for war service.
When he returned to Minnesota, the malaria returned. So he made a systematic study of America's climates, found the most temperate, and, in January 1874, booked passage on a steamer for San Diego. “His first priority was the recovery of his health, which his memoirs noted he achieved, within 18 months. His chronic illness had worn down his body; upon arrival he weighed just 120 pounds. This weight compared to the 196 pounds he would usually carry throughout his life in San Diego.
“It is ironic that Remondino, whose name in many history books became synonymous with promoting San Diego as a health resort, originally was himself a ‘health seeker.’”
At the end of his life, Remondino described himself, 50 years earlier, on arriving in San Diego: “...a man of truly remarkable attainments and ability — a young surgeon of foreign birth, but of thorough American northwestern frontier mental and character training, a keen observer, and student of anthropology, ethnology, philology, and of the natural sciences in general, as well as of medicine and surgery."
He began his medical practice in an office on Fifth, near F Street. (“He would have an office within walking distance of that site for the next 50 years.”) In two years he became city physician and president of the board of health. In 1877 he married Sophia Ann Earle. They had four children.
In 1879, the Remondinos entered real estate. They bought and sold land throughout San Diego County, including “LW. Kimball's Addition (today's National City), Mannasse and Schiller's Addition (southeast of today's Gaslamp area), as well as the Middletown (old Little Italy), and new San Diego (today's Gaslamp Quarter).” They also bought an 80-acre ranch in Cajon Valley. The property included a 10-acre fruit orchard — orange, almond, peach, apricot, apple, pear trees — and a barn with 20 stalls for horses. They didn't keep the ranch. “Perhaps Remondino had ideas of life as a gentleman rancher, but increased responsibilities in the city may have drained his energies away from the country life.”
In the 1880s, Remondino became a builder. He and partner Dr. Thomas Coates Stockton opened San Diego’s first private hospital in 1881. The two-story, 24-bed structure, on the corner of F and Columbia Streets, was “right in step with the booming national trend toward improved medical care in a special facility, rather than in the patient’s home.” Remondino and Stockton's hospital charged $1.50 to $3.00 per day, which included all expenses, and accommodated only private, but no indigent or charity, patients.
Remondino sold his share of the hospital to Dr. Stockton in 1884. The next year he became proprietor of the original St. James Hotel in downtown San Diego (it stood where the Maryland Hotel stands today, on F between Sixth and Seventh). In 1886 he added three stories, giving the structure 150 rooms. Guests ranged from governors and senators to world-renowned actress Lily Langtry.
San Diego’s “property boom” ended in 1888. Also, a “formidable new competitor, the Hotel del Coronado...opened in February 1888, and the St. James lost its glittering reputation as ‘the place to be’ to the prominent and exclusive island landmark.”
Along with a daily medical practice, real estate investments, hospital or hotel administration, membership in numerous clubs and societies (including the Marine Biological Association of San Diego, which founded the Scripps Institution), Remondino wrote voluminously. You wonder where the “no-nonsense” man found the time for letters to the editor, lectures, numerous journal articles, a History of Circumcision, and his famous Mediterranean Shores of America, or the Climatic, Physical, and Meteorological Conditions of Southern California, which historians still refer to today.
When he died, of cerebral thrombosis on December 10,1926, the San Diego Union printed John B. Osborne’s eulogy: “San Diego is bereaved. The sound of a loyal and dear friend to humanity, one of God's valiant and talented ones, has solved the mystery that lies beyond the vision of our mortality and stands triumphant and unafraid in the light of his Lord.”
MASTER'S THESIS EXCERPTS:
- Some study practices common in that era would not be tolerated today, such as the use for anatomy training of the corpse of a Sioux Indian dug out of the grave by Remondino himself. He also learned the primitive yet viable medical practices of young Sioux squaws, such as the use of herbs and plant salves.
- Battlefield medicine was primitive, at best, during the Civil War. Petroleum, rather than modem antiseptics and medicines, was a typical treatment for all ills, from bullet wound to the amputation of a shattered limb. Surgery was often performed without anaesthetic; the technique of replenishing lost blood was not yet known; and death from sepsis was common. Such was the internship of young Remondino.
- The mansard roof of the St. James, San Diego’s first skyscraper, was covered in decorative round tin plates on the top floors, which reflected the sun and glittered like minors.... United States Senator George Hearst (father of William Randolph) viewed the plates and exclaimed, “Magnificent! Where is your tin mine?"
- He was ahead of his time in many editorial stands. He urged the establishment of a Secretary of Health in the United States President's cabinet as early at 1892. This development did not take place until 1953, more than six decades later.