By Brecken Branstrator
The city of San Francisco gifted this circa 1908 Patek Philippe pocket watch to American physician Rupert Blue for his help eradicating the bubonic plague. It could sell for up to $45,000 when it goes to auction June 9.
Dallas—In 1918, a devastating pandemic known as the Spanish flu was ravaging the United States, and many of the measures taken, and lessons learned, then mirror those of the current crisis.

It’s very timely, then, that an 18-karat gold Patek Philippe pocket watch owned by the doctor who helped guide the U.S. through that pandemic more than a century ago will go up for auction next month at Heritage Auctions in Dallas.

At the time of the Spanish flu outbreak, Rupert Blue served as surgeon general.

He counseled Americans to follow a number of protocols that will sound familiar—wearing facial coverings, practicing social distancing, and closing establishments where large numbers of people gather, like schools and churches.

Blue was only 50 years old at the time the Spanish flu took hold of the country but he’d already navigated several crises as a member of the U.S. Public Health Service, most notably the bubonic plague that swept through San Francisco in two waves—in 1903-1904 and then again from 1907-1908.

Blue understood the disease would only be cured if doctors figured out how it spread and who was impacted.

He established a lab and office in the San Francisco’s Chinatown neighborhood, the center of the outbreak, and embarked on a campaign to disinfect the city and exterminate its rats.

When he left San Francisco to help cities plagued with other issues, its health department awarded Blue with a proclamation thanking him for “his skillful and energetic cooperation in all pertaining to the welfare of San Francisco’s high sanitary state and commercial prosperity.”

For his work eradicating the plague from the city, he received the 18-karat gold Patek Philippe pocket watch.

Its inside dust cover bears the following inscription (as seen in the picture below): “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.”

20200528 Blue Watch insert

The dial of the minute-repeating split-second chronograph features white enamel, Arabic numerals, gold Louis XV hands, and a 30-minute register at 12 o’clock.

The 45 mm case made in 18-karat gold has an invisible hinge, gold cuvette with inscription, gold slide for the repeat on the rim, and split-second buttons in the crown and on the band.

Heritage Auctions Watches & Fine Timepieces Director Jim Wolf said the citizens of San Francisco “spared no expense when choosing this timepiece as a token of gratitude.”

“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.”

A decade after he received the watch, Blue served on the frontlines of the nation’s worst pandemic, commanding quarantine stations and enlisting more than 250 doctors into the Public Health Service to fight the Spanish flu, particularly notable at a time when the nation’s ranks of medical professionals had been depleted by World War I.

Blue also served during the yellow fever outbreak in New Orleans in 1905.

In addition to being named surgeon general in 1909, Blue was elected president of the American Medical Association and president of the Association of Military Surgeons of the U.S.A. in 1915.

When his Patek Philippe pocket watch hits the block as part of Heritage Auctions’ June 9 Watches & Fine Timepieces Auction, it’s expected to sell for between $35,000 and $45,000.

Get the Daily News >
National Jeweler

Fine Jewelry Industry News

Since 1906, National Jeweler has been the must-read news source for smart jewelry professionals--jewelry retailers, designers, buyers, manufacturers, and suppliers. From market analysis to emerging jewelry trends, we cover the important industry topics vital to the everyday success of jewelry professionals worldwide. National Jeweler delivers the most urgent jewelry news necessary for running your day-to-day jewelry business here, and via our daily e-newsletter, website and other specialty publications, such as "The State of the Majors." National Jeweler is published by Jewelers of America, the leading nonprofit jewelry association in the United States.