Perhaps the name inscribed on the inner dust cover of the Patek Philippe in Heritage Auctions’ June 9 Timepieces Auction – Rupert Blue – does not ring a bell. But that is only because the good doctor sought neither fame nor fortune. He was, instead, a public servant who tried only to save millions of lives when plagues threatened to devour cities and a deadly virus swept across this country.
A century ago, when the United States was in the grips of another merciless pandemic, Blue served as Surgeon General. And what he said then reverberates in every caution uttered now: “The disease now spreading over this country is highly catching,” he warned time and again, “and may invade your community and attack you and your family unless you are very careful.”
In the midst of the Spanish influenza’s return and resurgence in the fall of 1918, Blue instructed everyone to wear facial coverings, and counseled governments to shutter schools and churches. He, too, advised of social distancing long before it became a term of art. “Keep out of crowds as much as possible,” the doctor advised Americans.
Just 50 years old at the time the influenza ravaged this country, Blue was already a veteran of numerous epidemics – most famously, the Bubonic plague that twice swept through San Francisco at the turn of the 20th century. It was Blue who believed the only way to cure the disease was to understand how it spread and who it impacted – which was too often the very Chinese immigrants wrongly blamed for its rise.
Blue, a health officer in the Marine Hospital Service and its successor the United States Public Health Service, sanitized a city without demonizing its victims.
His brother Victor was a soldier; and Rupert, too, wanted to serve his country as his war-hero brother had. But as David K. Randall wrote in last year’s acclaimed Black Death at the Golden Gate: The Race to Save America from the Bubonic Plague, “Rupert’s purpose was to heal rather than to hurt.”
“My greatest ambition,” Blue said in an April 1912 interview for the magazine The World's Work, “is to clean up the United States.”
Randall’s book, which will be released in paperback this July, rescues Blue’s name from history’s footnotes; it also serves as a reminder that saviors can sometimes slip from history’s spotlight. But make no mistake: At the time, San Francisco’s residents and its leaders knew well his valor.
Upon his departure for other cities plagued by other outbreaks, the city’s health department awarded him a proclamation thanking Blue for “his skillful and energetic cooperation in all pertaining to the welfare of San Francisco’s high sanitary state and commercial prosperity.” And it was for his work chasing the plague from that city – and the vermin that carried it – that Blue received this 18K gold Patek Philippe now for sale. It bears on its inner dust cover, or cuvette, the following inscription:
“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.”
This glimmering golden timepiece looks today as it did more than a century ago, when it was in the possession of a man who would go on to advocate for national health insurance. One cannot help but note that this watch belonged to a man far ahead of his time.
“The citizens of San Francisco spared no expense when choosing this timepiece as a token of gratitude,” said Heritage Auctions Watches & Fine Timepieces Director Jim Wolf. “It was a first-quality, highly complicated watch by the most accomplished maker, and it would have cost a handsome sum – close to $1,000 when manufactured in 1905. The current owner had the foresight and good judgement to have this watch fully serviced by Patek Philippe, at their highest standard of workmanship, before placing it in auction.”
A decade after he received this watch, Blue would find himself on the frontlines of the nation’s worst pandemic, enlisting more than 250 doctors into the Public Health Service to help combat the Spanish influenza. It is now as it was then, more than a century ago, when illness and fear and misinformation spread across this county with unparalleled, unfathomable expediency.
The contagions carry different names; so do the warriors who emerged. But the echoes of history’s repetitions are too deafening to ignore. This watch belonged to one of the United States’ greatest heroes. And it’s not cute or clever to say his story and his message remains timeless.