Is that Biddy Mason in a UCSF Toland Hall fresco?

Is that Biddy Mason in a UCSF Toland Hall fresco?

I first saw a photo of this mural during my Ph.D. research on U.S. Army Surgeon John S. Griffin. This remarkable scene shows Dr. Griffin being assisted by a black woman as he treats a soldier with malaria. While additional archival sleuthing is needed to definitively identify her, the assistant appears to be Biddy Mason. Beginning in 1856, she was employed in Dr. Griffin’s civilian medical practice as a nurse, as well as being a renowned midwife and an expert in herbal medicines.

The image is one of ten frescoes on the walls of the Toland Hall auditorium, located on the Parnassus campus of the University of California, San Francisco. (A mural is an image painted on a wall or ceiling, while “fresco” refers to the technique of painting on wet plaster.) Together, the Toland Hall murals portray the history and development of medicine in California, from the healing practices of indigenous peoples through the first decades of the twentieth century. Toland Hall was built in 1917, and the murals were created between 1936 and 1938, with funding from the Federal Art Project, part of the WPA.

In 1934, at the height of the Great Depression, a group of San Francisco artists had lobbied for murals depicting contemporary San Francisco life on the recently-constructed Coit Tower. One of the artists who organized this local Public Works of Art Project, was Bernard Zakheim. Another Zakheim fresco, “Community Spirit” at the Alemany Health Center, inspired UCSF professor of pathology Isabella Perry to recommend the commissioning of Zakheim to paint murals in Toland Hall; this proposal was championed by UCSF professor (and medical historian) Chauncey Leake. Zakheim, a Jewish native of Poland, had been a prisoner of war during WW I and sought political asylum in the U.S., moving to San Francisco in 1920. Ten years later he met Diego Rivera, who – after creating a series of large-scale public murals in post-Revolution Mexico City – painted a number of murals in San Francisco in the early 1930s. Zakheim subsequently studied with Rivera in Mexico, and also in Paris.

Zakheim was assisted in the Toland Hall frescos by the artist Phyllis Wrightson, whose sketchbook for the project captures her extensive research into California’s medical history. In part, she relied on Henry Harris’ California’s Medical Story (1932). Wrightson also designed some of the details in the murals, transferred them to the auditorium walls prior to the application of the plaster, and did some of the painting.

But the murals were controversial. Zakheim’s Social Realism style and left-leaning politics led to protests about the murals (as well as faculty comments that the murals distracted students from lectures in the auditorium). Following Dr. Leake’s departure from UCSF in 1942, the murals were covered with wallpaper, which was subsequently painted. Leake returned to the campus in 1962 and worked to have the murals uncovered; they were restored in the mid-1970s by Zakheim’s son Nathan.

Zakheim’s description of the murals, particularly of the panel of the history of medicine in 1840s-1860s Southern California with Dr. Griffin and the African-American woman, did not mention Biddy Mason. So how and why was she included? A tantalizing clue is that George D. Lyman was among the collaborative team of UCSF doctors involved in the Toland Hall murals. Dr. Lyman wrote the “Foreword” of A Doctor Comes to California: The Diary of John S. Griffin, Assistant Surgeon with Kearny’s Dragoons, 1846-47, which was edited by George Ames and published in 1943. Lyman served as the President of the California Historical Society and he had an extensive private collection of historical sources. Although Dr. Griffin’s diary only extends to 1847, Lyman may have done further research about him, including Griffin’s post-1856 collaboration with Biddy Mason. The photograph of this panel that I first saw is included in the first of Viola Lockhart Warren’s 1954-1955 series of articles about “Dr. John S. Griffin’s Mail, 1846-1853.” Warren’s work (after Lyman’s death in 1949) is the most extensive biography of Dr. Griffin to date, and she refers to “Bitty Mason” assisting him by providing nursing care to new mothers. Warren was a lecturer in medical history at the University of California, Los Angeles from 1953 to 1958, and she was the wife of Dr. Stafford L. Warren. They both received their bachelor’s degrees at U.C. Berkeley in 1918 and married in 1920. Stafford went on to complete a medical degree at UCSF in 1922 and he was named the first dean of the UCLA Medical School beginning in 1947. Viola Lockhart Warren’s later research about Griffin suggests that the Warrens knew Dr. Lyman – and that Biddy’s identity (if not the correct spelling of her name!) was known among the doctors involved with the Toland Hall murals in the 1930s. This awareness of Biddy’s importance to medical history likely led to her inclusion in the mural.

Once COVID-19 restrictions allow libraries and archives to re-open, perhaps Phyllis Wrightson’s sketchbook for the Toland Hall murals in UCSF Special Collections will confirm that the name of the woman portrayed assisting Dr. Griffin is indeed Biddy Mason. Yet even if there is no further information there, the documentation of Biddy Mason’s work with Griffin and the connections among the doctors and lecturers consulting on the UCSF murals who were familiar with it, make a case for this being a representation of Biddy’s role in the development of medicine in 1850s and 1860s Los Angeles.


Allen J. Balderson, “Memorial Service for Artist Bernard Zakheim at UC-San Francisco, January 21,” University of California San Francisco News/Public Information Services, published online,, accessed June 23, 2020.

“Bernard Baruch Zakheim” record, Bernard Zakheim Collection, 1902-2010, UCSF Library,, accessed June 23, 2020.

“Diego Rivera,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, published online by Encyclopaedia Britannica,, accessed June 23, 2020.

Polina Ilieva, “Recent Acquisition: Bernard Zakheim Collection,” published online by Brought to Light, UCSF Archives & Special Collections,, accessed June 23, 2020.

Chauncey Leake, “Toland Hall mural tour by Chauncey Leake” video recording, 1976, published online by University of California, San Francisco,, accessed June 23, 2020.

Robert Schindler, “Toland Hall Murals: An Oral History” video recording, 1996, published online by University of California, San Francisco,, accessed June 23, 2020.

Jean Shiffman, “Restoration of Coit Tower’s Murals: SF’s Monument to the Fresco,” published online by San Francisco Travel,, accessed June 23, 2020.

Robert S. Sherins and Bernard Zakheim, History of Medicine in California, Articulated in Frescoes: The Story Behind the Murals of Toland Hall, UCSF, manuscript published online,, accessed June 23, 2020.

Viola Lockhart Warren, “Foreign Doctors in the Pueblo of Los Angeles,” The Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 4 (December 1952), 309-326.

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