There’s a story behind every caseback inscription, but the timeliness and significance of the inscription on a Patek Philippe pocket watch manufactured in 1905 up for auction at Heritage Auctions in Texas are particularly haunting in the context of 2020. The City of San Francisco gave this specific pocket watch to Dr. Rupert Blue in 1908 for his outstanding achievements in ridding San Francisco of the bubonic plague. Dr. Blue was a leading physician of the era and eventually went on to become the Surgeon General and the president of the American Medical Association.
His efforts against the bubonic plague in San Francisco came early in his career. Hearing the phrase, “bubonic plague” conjures up images of beaked masks and black robes typically associated with the 14th-century outbreak called Black Death, but the bacterium Yersinia pestis, and the deadly havoc it wreaks, isn’t limited to medieval history. In fact, there was a massive outbreak in San Francisco in February of 1903, and then again in 1907 after an earthquake had allowed rats and their fleas, the actual carriers of the plague, to proliferate among the damage. Dr. Blue was the man on the front lines using science to combat the spreading plague during both instances and received this Patek Philippe pocket watch specifically for those efforts. (Although history does have a tendency to repeat itself, I have a hunch that Dr. Anthony Fauci won’t ditch his Timex for a Patek Philippe any time soon.)
According to the archival extract ordered from Patek Philippe in 2017, the pocket watch gifted to Dr. Blue uses a movement listed as 16‴, minute repeater, split seconds chronograph-register; lever escapement. The 45mm case is fashioned from 18K yellow gold, the dial from enamel, signed with “Shreve & Co.” The jeweler, incorporated in 1894, is one of the oldest commercial establishments in San Francisco. Pocket watches from as early as 1882 have been documented bearing the Shreve & Co signed dial. Patek Philippe pocket watches from prior to 1894 were distributed by Shreve & Co.’s predecessor, the Shreve Jewelry Company, from the same family behind Shreve, Crump & Low in Boston.
According to John Reardon, a Patek expert, “During the first part of the 20th century, it was common for watches to be given as presentation gifts to honored citizens, doctors, businessmen, etc. Typically, we see presentations for retirements and commemorative events.” John is the founder of Collectability.com, and to demonstrate the common practice of gifting timepieces for folks who have served the public, he highlights a pocket watch he now has that was given to another medical hero, Dr. Walter B. Coffey, for his groundbreaking work on cancer research, also from San Francisco. Like the watch gifted to Dr. Blue, this one was purchased from Shreve & Co. as well. That pocket watch is cased in platinum, whereas Dr. Blue’s watch is cased in 18K gold.
The inscription on the pocket watch gifted to Blue reads:
To Rupert Blue P.A. Surgeon, U.S.P.H. and M.H.S. from the citizens of San Francisco. In grateful recognition of services rendered the city while in command of the Sanitation Campaign of 1908
By 1908, Dr. Blue already had a number of accolades to his name. In the above inscription, U.S.P.H. and M.H.S denote his service to the U.S. Public Health Service and its successor, the Marine Hospital Service, where he was commissioned as a surgeon. In San Francisco, he was a saving grace and loved by many. In addition to his extraordinary efforts using science in the pursuit of accurate data, he fought to reverse the popular opinion that the plague had originated in Chinatown, when in fact, it was spread by rats.
Although Dr. Blue was known locally for his achievements eradicating San Francisco of the plague, he wouldn’t become a household name in America until a decade later, and by that time, he had worked his way up to acting Surgeon General of the United States of America.
In 1918, the Spanish Flu stopped the United States of America in its tracks. The virus brought the economy to a halt and forced the entire nation to wear masks and shelter in place, much like today. The loss of life was shocking: Roughly 675,000 Americans had succumbed to the virus that year, and 20 million to 50 million worldwide. It’s hard to imagine, but the cost of life could have been much higher during the Spanish Flu pandemic if it weren’t for the work of Dr. Blue as the acting Surgeon General at the time.
Even with the complex demands of wartime, Dr. Blue managed to expand the role of the Public Health Service and mobilize the Volunteer Medical Service Corps. On October 5, 1918, Dr. Blue gave an order that had a dramatic impact on the spread of the Spanish Flu: He ordered that all schools, theaters, saloons, restaurants, and any place of public gathering shut down. This was at a time when science wasn’t at all what it is today. It was a bold move. As the pandemic wound down, Dr. Blue wrote in a letter to fellow medical professional and Colonel of the Officers’ Reserve Corps Dr. William Welch, “The present epidemic has demonstrated the imperative need of a permanent organization, within the Public Health Service, available with each emergency.” Unfortunately, his plea did little to increase research and preparedness, as the country was still reeling from the suffering endured during World War I.
Outside of medical circles, the work of Dr. Blue is not widely known, but through a Patek Philippe pocket watch, we’re able to peer into a world where comparisons can easily be made to our own current reality. After the pandemic passes, certain public officials will indeed receive recognition for their role in the fight against COVID-19. But, for better or worse, at some point over the last century, the tradition of the public gifting of a Patek Philippe has gone away. Even with another zero on the end, a single stimulus check wouldn’t cover the purchase of a modern Patek Philippe timepiece.
The current bid on Lot #54052 is at $ 22,000 at the time of writing. The auction can be viewed here, and ends on June 9. Images courtesy of Heritage Auctions.