Dr. Bob

By Emily Gold Boutilier / January / February 2002
July 1st, 2007
There aren't many doctors left like Robert E. Staff. He was for decades the only physician on a small California island, delivering babies, setting broken bones, curing aches and pains, and stitching up wounds. He often made house calls. If surgery was what was needed, he was up to the task.

Staff died on October 21 when a fire broke out in his house in Avalon, California, the only town on Santa Catalina Island, which lies in the Santa Barbara Island chain off the southern coast of the state. After escaping to the porch, he dashed back inside to save his wife, Virginia, but both died in the flames. Staff was eighty-three, and his wife was seventy-eight.

Staff lived and practiced medicine in the town for more than forty years before he retired in 1997. "My dad was one of the last of the small-town doctors," says John Staff. "Sometimes he did house calls on his bike, sometimes in his bathing suit - whatever it took to get to a patient. He was always on call."

During World War II, Staff was a surgeon aboard a U.S. Coast Guard troop transport. He later joined the U.S. Public Health Service, which stationed him in Alaska during the late 1940s. While there, he treated Inuit during a tuberculosis epidemic. He also delivered his son there.

The family moved to Avalon (population 1,800) in 1955. He didn't see a lot of new faces in his practice, nor did he make a lot of money. Known as Dr. Bob, Staff devoted his days to serving the community in any way he could. During the 1960s he was instrumental in establishing a twelve-bed hospital in town. He'd delivered many of the town's residents, including several of the firefighters who responded to the blaze at his house. In recent years, however, liability concerns forced Staff to send many patients needing surgery or other difficult emergency procedures to the mainland.

John Staff says the entire island was affected by his father's death: "Just about everyone in town knows him - not only knows him, but loves him. He was in my opinion a brilliant man. He could have done all kinds of things. He chose to serve small communities."

Bob Staff and his wife would have celebrated their 54th wedding anniversary on November 1. John Staff can be reached at 448 Montecito Ave., Sierra Madre, Calif. 91024. Dr. Staff is also survived by four daughters, a sister, and eight grandchildren.

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January / February 2002