Unlocking History

Early San Quentin doctor pushes prison medicine into 20th century

Three men in hats visit with each other.
Dr. Leo Stanley, center, speaks with ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, left, and another friend in 1947.

In 1913, Woodrow Wilson became the 28th President of the United States and the Ford Motor Company instituted the world’s first moving assembly line to crank out its Model T. Meanwhile, 27-year-old Dr. Leo Stanley was appointed resident doctor at San Quentin State Prison.

He served as the San Quentin doctor until 1951, only leaving for a brief time to serve in World War II. When he retired, Harry S. Truman was in the White House, the Korean War was raging and America was tuning in to watch the first episode of “I Love Lucy.”

Stanley came into a prison using outdated methods and equipment. The young doctor quickly set about bringing the 19th century prison into the modern era. Learn more about the prisons and the people who helped shape today’s CDCR in our history section.

Love, life and loss

Stanley followed in his father’s footsteps when he chose to study medicine, earning his medical degree from Cooper College in 1912. The same year, he also tied the knot.

“Well I fell in love with the secretary of Dr. Wicksler’s, Romaine, (and needed to get a job),” he recalled in 1974. “So we were married a month before I graduated from medical school. Being an intern, we felt that was earning no money at all, only my board. When this offer for a position came along to go to San Quentin at $75 a month to be an assistant, we jumped at that.”

He didn’t plan to stay long, maybe a few years, and then open a private practice.

“I felt (San Quentin) would be a good place perhaps to get some experience and I still had the idea in mind that I would like to become a country practitioner, not a city specialist and I felt that this would be a fine thing for us for a few years to get really established,” he said in 1974.

In his book, “My Most Unforgettable Convicts,” Dr. Stanley recounts his early efforts to quell the spread of tuberculosis.

“A procedure I had originated (to provide a) medical entrance examination (for) every prisoner soon after I took charge of the Medical Department in 1913 (had identified) 60 (patients),” he wrote in the 1967 book. “In my first year I had found most of the established tuberculosis cases. With the help of Warden James A. Johnston and a sympathetic Board of Prison Directors, we built an open-air hospital of 4,800 square feet, without bars and with sun areas open to the sky, on the flat roofs of three of the original buildings surrounding the plaza. Here we moved both the active and the incipient cases. The patients were given the accepted treatment for tuberculosis in those days: no work to do and the best of food.”

His drive to learn as much as he could about tuberculosis was how close to home the illness would strike.

“My interest in this dreaded disease was more than humanitarian. The girl whom I had married before graduation from medical college developed tuberculosis shortly after we went to San Quentin and she was bedridden in our home on the hill above the prison,” he wrote.

Stanley’s plans to make the job a temporary one were placed on hold.

“Well, of course I expected to stay only a short time at San Quentin but my little wife developed tuberculosis and at San Quentin she had the best of care. We had our own home. We had a little convict, a … murderer, who was assigned to our place and he became Mrs. Stanley’s nurse and he prepared our food,” he said. “He took great care of her and he lived with us until 1926 when she was improved enough that we felt we could move to San Rafael. She and the (convict) made a model of the house which she wished to have built and in fact this was built at Fifth and D Street in San Rafael. It was a beautiful little stucco home with my office on one side.”

Trustee for San Quentin doctor

Mugshot of a young man with 28622 on his chest.
Lim Foon, 1915, was assigned to San Quentin doctor Leo Stanley as an inmate trustee.

The trustee helper was Lim Foon, someone the doctor took under his wing and eventually helped secure his release.

“I first met Lim Foon in San Quentin. When he was only 18, he had been sent up from Stockton for murder. … In a tong war, a Chinese man had been killed on the street in front of a poultry store. Lim was then visiting a friend. Frightened, he fled by the back door and hid in a large chicken coop. Police searching the premises found the sweating, shaking boy and interpreted his fear as a sign of guilt. He was convicted in a court where he was badly represented and sent to us,” Dr. Stanley wrote in his book, “My Most Unforgettable Convicts.”

An elderly man on his deathbed later confessed to the murder.

“After much investigation and at a considerable expense, I was able to get a full pardon for him from Governor Friend Richardson,” he wrote. “Years before his pardon was obtained, prison staff were allowed to have a cook or (assistant) from among the prisoners and Lim Foon was assigned to us. He soon developed a special fondness for Mrs. Stanley, who taught him to read and write from her sickbed. He was a devoted (helper) and money could never repay him for his gentleness, kindness and devotion to my wife. After she died (in 1926), I remained a bachelor for 12 years and he stayed on with me. When I remarried, he gave me notice to work in a laundry.”

A change of scenery was in order so Dr. Stanley took a temporary job as ship’s surgeon in 1929 aboard the SS Malolo. That 1929 excursion was revolutionary for its time. The ship’s owners worked with the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce to organize the first “Around the Pacific” cruise, visiting 14 countries.

“On (Sept. 21) 356 millionaires set sail from San Francisco on an ambitious 90-day, 24,000-mile odyssey aboard the fastest and most luxurious ship in the Pacific,” according to the Pioneers of Santa Clara County. “Thirty-eight days into the tour, somewhere between the American-Governed Philippines and French Colonial Saigon, passengers received news about stock markets crashing all around the globe.”

Improving San Quentin’s conditions

When he was appointed resident physician in 1913, the young doctor immediately sought improvements at the prison.

“With the end in view of affording the inmates of the prison an equal, if not better chance when they are released (to compete) in life … and to turn out of prison men in a physical condition superior to that with which they entered, the medical department has … made favorable and encouraging progress,” Stanley wrote on July 10, 1914, in a report to the prison directors. “The hospital … has become a modern and up-to-date institution where the latest methods of treatment are in use. And it has been a great factor in restoring physical human wrecks and failures to a place among men with an equal chance for success.”

He often performed plastic surgery on inmates as a way to improve their self-image and help their post-release reintegration into society.

“Considerable plastic surgery has been done, particularly that done for deformed noses,” Dr. Stanley wrote in his 1918 report to the warden. “This work has been of benefit in that it has improved the appearance of many of the men and removed a deforming feature. Some work has been done on ears which were very prominent. They have been operated on in such a way that ear that protruded far from the head have been brought closer into normal position.”

The men’s appearances were so transformed, police weren’t sure they’d be recognizable from their earlier photographs.

“When Dr. Leo Stanley of San Quentin prison began remodeling the wrecked features of sundry gentry to whom fate, police men’s clubs and foe-men’s fists had been unkind, he little thought of making trouble for the cops. So he restored many a nose which was off its bearings to a proper course. Then it was found that when Dr. Stanley got through with a convict, the convict looked nothing like his picture taken when he came to prison and if ever wanted again, no cop on earth could recognize him. So today, Warden Johnson ordered all prisoners re-photographed on expiration of their sentence,” reported the Riverside Daily Press, Dec. 12, 1917.

Experiments tarnish San Quentin doctor’s legacy

What garnered interest from the public as well as the medical community were his efforts to restore youth and vitality to older inmates.

“Youth is returning to the old man who received the ‘life-giving’ gland from Tom Belton, the Merced murderer who was hanged … last Friday. The (San Quentin) prison physicians today stated that he had a better appetite and increased pulse,” reported the United Press Dispatch, Oct. 21, 1919.

Other medical professionals were also pursuing similar treatment for older patients, often using animal glands.

“Dr. Serge Voronoff (of Paris, France,) today urged that municipal cold storage plants be built to present the life-giving interstitial glands which could be taken from hopelessly injured men. He said that even the dead can donate an immense treasure because the organs do not die immediately when the heart stops,” according to the United Press Dispatch report. “The transplanting of glands, he says, gives renewal of human youth and strength.”

The Dispatch went on to report, “(San Quentin doctor) Leo Stanley has become an international figure in the surgical world through his successful operations in rejuvenating old and senile prisoners by transplanting the interstitial glands of murderers who have paid the law’s penalty.”

Decades later, this research was debunked and the experimental practices tarnished the doctor’s reputation.

According to the Online Archives of California, “During his tenure at San Quentin, Stanley performed medical experiments on prisoners involving testicular transplants, attracting national media attention. This notoriety would cling to him until his death in 1976.”

San Quentin doctor saves warden’s life

He briefly served as San Quentin’s warden in 1933 while Warden Holohan recovered from illness.

“The regular warden, Holohan, was sick, so I was chosen to administer the prison, and I did not want to do anything which Warden Holohan, upon his return, would think was done to undermine him and his policies,” Stanley wrote in his book, “My Most Unforgettable Convicts,” published in 1967. “I made numerous tours of the prison, something I could do, but which Holohan, because of his ill health, had been unable to attend to. I saw many conditions which could be improved upon. Clean-up (crews) were organized. These, under the supervision of a reliable ‘con boss’ did wonders in policing the grounds. And the men in these work (crews) were kept busy and out of trouble. … None of these improvements were accomplished without the knowledge, consent and encouragement of the members of the Board of Prison Directors, who visited the prison frequently.”

Dr. Stanley returned to his regular role when the warden was well enough to return to duty.

A few years later, Dr. Stanley worked feverishly to save the warden’s life after he was gravely injured.

“Doctors today gave James B. Holohan, warden of San Quentin, a better than even chance to recover from serious injuries received in yesterday’s prison break. He was not yet out of danger, however, for he had a frontal fracture of the skull and 19 lacerations on his scalp, all received when he was struck from behind by a revolver in the hands of Rudolph Straight, the convict later killed in the escape plot,” reported the Madera Tribune, Jan. 17, 1935.

“When he regained consciousness for a time last night, Warden Holohan told of the vicious attack which had felled him and split open his skull. ‘I was struck from behind,’ he said. ‘I turned quickly to put up resistance when the blond man, the leader of the gang, swung a gun over his head and hit me with the barrel. (So,) I dropped to the floor, losing consciousness apparently for I don’t know what happened after that. It all came in a flash.’ (San Quentin doctor) Leo Stanley used all his skill to pull the warden through a critical period immediately after the beating.”

San Quentin doctor goes to war

Through this tumultuous time of the 1930s, Stanley fell in love again.

“Being a bachelor for a long, long time I (would) travel around the country a good deal with Warden Holohan inspecting prison camps and so forth and down in Santa Clara we stopped at a little pear orchard and there was (a lady) who had this pear orchard, and one thing went on to another and I felt she’d make a pretty good second wife for me. So (Bernice and I) were married in ’38,” he recalled in 1974.

After only a few years of marriage, the country was plunged into World War II.

Less than two weeks after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Dr. Stanley was called into service.

“(San Quentin doctor Leo Stanley was) suddenly taken into military service last week. (He) was called to take his position as lieutenant commander in the naval reserve,” reported the Sausalito News, Dec. 16, 1941.

“As soon as war was declared I was assigned to the Naval Hospital in Mare Island. I served there about three months, and was assigned to the office of Naval Officer Procurement in San Francisco. In that office it was necessary for me to interview many of the applicants for office and then in September of 1942, very suddenly, my orders came for me to assume the duty as Medical Officer on the heavy cruiser Minneapolis which was out in the Pacific,” Stanley recalled in 1974.

Before he could report for duty, the ship ended up in a devastating battle.

“The Minneapolis got into another battle, had her bow shot off, and a torpedo in her hold, and she was beached at Tulargi. Then my orders were changed and I was assigned to the Naval Hospital at Pearl Harbor. I remained there a whole year taking care of the casualties from the South Pacific. At the end of that year, I was assigned to the hospital ship Solace and remained on her for a whole year. She traveled all over the Pacific, was foremost in the battles at Eniwetok, Saipan, Guam and other places.”

His ship tended to the wounded, staying just outside the active combat zones. Those ships were positioned next to destroyers as they shelled the beaches.

“In a battle, for instance the taking of Eniwetok, the battleships went in first and strafed the island. The transports went in and were unloading their troops with landing boats that went ashore and then the Solace was right in behind them waiting to receive the wounded which came from the shore. Outboard from that were some of the destroyers which were lobbing shells over into the island. Well that was a typical assault and that occurred of course at Saipan and Guam and other places before I was then ordered to duty at the Naval Hospital at Treasure Island. I was there almost a year before the war ended and was in charge of the so-called ‘sick officers’ quarters.”

San Quentin doctor returns to prison post

After the war’s end, he took a year to acclimate himself to civilian life before returning to San Quentin.

“Two of San Quentin’s well-known officials are returning to their former posts, according to an announcement from Warden Clinton Duffy. Stanley, long-time chief surgeon at the penitentiary, plans to return to his old post with the title of chief medical officer about Oct. 1. Stanley took a leave of absence during the war, serving with the navy as a captain in the Medical Corps, and has since been taking a year’s absence for rest. Also returning to his post as assistant to Dr. Stanley will be Dr. Alex Miller, who also took a leave for duty in the armed forces. Dr. David Schmidt of Larkspur, who has been serving as acting chief medical officer during Stanley’s absence, will return to his former post as chief psychiatrist,” reported the Sausalito News, Sept. 4, 1947.

Post-war slice of paradise

He and his wife purchased some acreage after he returned from the war.

“Well, when I came back from the war in ’46 after being out for almost four years, Mrs. Stanley (experienced) a pretty hard time in San Rafael with sugar rationing, gas rationing, putting up with a lot of people who bothered her in many ways in San Rafael. When I came back she said, ‘Suppose we see if we can find a little place in the country.’ And I said, ‘Well that would be very nice. You go look around. Probably you can find a little place in Novato or out in Point Reyes someplace like that.’ But she did come to Fairfax and here on the top of the hill 800 feet above sea level she found what was then called ‘Crest Farm’ and still has that same name,” he recalled in 1974. 

“(Purchasing the property) took all of my funds which I had accumulated all of my life. We love it very much; it’s really a paradise. We have 10 acres and we have our fruit trees, redwoods, gardens, about everything that one would want.”

The prison in the post-war era had drastically changed, as had the medical practices he established. He officially retired his post in 1951, his career touching five decades.

The sea called again and he returned to being a ship’s surgeon aboard cruise lines.

“(After retirement,) I did a little private practice in San Rafael but the opportunity came for me to be relief surgeon on these trans-pacific liners. (They were) going to the Orient two or three times a year. I met many wonderful people and the experiences on-board were very interesting. Because the ship surgeon, you might think it’s an easy job but it’s far from that because you have a passenger list of 400 to 500 and a crew of 300 or 400. You’re on your own out there and you have to do everything. I (have) delivered babies and taken care of coronaries, broken bones, cuts, everything that you would have to do in general hospital,” he said in 1974.

Dr. Stanley died in 1976 at 90 years old.

Learn more about Marin County at the Anne T. Kent California Room of the Marin County Free Library.

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor

Learn more about California prison history.

Follow us on YouTubeFacebook and Twitter.