Opinion: Finding Meaning

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Medicine in Early Laguna

Researching century-old Laguna newspapers, one name stands out: Dr. Burgess B. Mason. If someone was sick, injured, or dying, the town is interested and the newspapers report Dr. Mason’s prognosis. In 1920, the son of a Kansas doctor is a young family man practicing medicine in tiny Grenola, Kansas. Inexplicably, he next appears in Laguna Beach, where he starts a practice and founds our first hospital. My curiosity was aroused. What brought Dr. Mason to Laguna?

The answer might be Miss Ann Mason. Ann Mason came to Laguna by 1916 when Laguna’s year-round population was barely 300 adults. She is variously an artist, art patron, and Laguna socialite. She shares the same last name and came from the same area of Kansas as Dr. Mason. I imagine Ann Mason writing a letter home her first winter in Laguna, describing the idyllic weather, ocean sunsets, roses blooming in January. The word spreads and by 1921 Dr. Mason gains a license to practice in California, then settles his family in Laguna.

Dr. Mason becomes part of the budding community. He joins the Chamber of Commerce (the group running Laguna before its 1927 incorporation), and serves as president of Laguna’s Citizens Bank. His wife Olive was socially active and their daughter Dorothy married her high school sweetheart Donald S. Johnson in what The Register called “one of the loveliest weddings of the year.” The groom’s father, Ernie Johnson, was one of the major league baseball players who made Laguna their home in that time and son Donald went on to also play in the majors.

Here’s a story from 1929: Arthur G. Stromerson, the town motor policeman, is hurled from his skidding motorcycle and suffers a terrible brain injury. Dr. Mason has founded a small hospital and the injured policeman is carried there. Seeing the gravity of the injury, the good doctor calls for Dr. M. A. Glaser, a Los Angeles brain specialist. In what must have been a modest operating room, they perform what Los Angeles Times calls “one of the most delicate brain operations in medical history.” The prognosis? Dr. Mason gives the policeman an even chance of survival. The result? In the 1930 Census, Stromerson is back on the job, still a policeman.

Dr. Mason never retired; after more than 40 years caring for the people of Laguna, he died in his office in 1966. He was the oldest practicing physician in Orange County and I suppose he knew more about the people of Laguna than anyone else. There must be people still living he cared for as children. It’s a fringe benefit of being a doctor, people remember you for the care you gave.

We’ve been in a pandemic for nearly two years and in that period medical caregivers have carried a heavy burden at great risk. This column about Dr. Burgess B. Mason is dedicated to all those care providers as an expression of thanks. Their care will also be remembered. There’s meaning in that.

Skip fell in love with Laguna on a ‘50s surfing trip. He’s a student of Laguna history and the author of “Loving Laguna: A Local’s Guide to Laguna Beach”. Email: [email protected]

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