Frederick Adolph Speik (1882-1940)


Dr. Speik’s distinguished career and athletic achievements are well documented, and a simple Google search will unearth a wealth of interesting information. This blog will attempt to put the information in order and chronicle the story of his life and death to offer some context.

The Early Years

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Baby Frederick

Frederick Adolph Speik was born in Stockton, California on January 26, 1882. The household consisted of his parents, Emma and Wilheim Speik, and his six year-old half-sister Ida. The town itself had a population of about ten thousand. Although Stockton was inland it was a port city thanks to a deep-water channel from the Pacific that enabled seagoing ships to reach California’s San Joaquin valley and the Gold Country in the Sierra foothills.

I believe that during Frederick’s infancy his parents worked in their home, making cigars, with Wilhelm traveling frequently to San Francisco to sell the product of their labors, but by 1884 Wilheim had moved his little family to East Modesto. This move suggests that the Speiks no longer needed access to the Stockton-San Francisco ferries to sell their cigars. Modesto had a population of only 1,500 or so, but the Speiks were able to acquire desirable retail property on Front Street and set up shop as “Wm. Speik, Manufacturer of and Dealer in Fine Cigars, Smoking and Chewing Tobaccos.” This evidenced a considerable improvement in stature, and doubtless finances as well. Many of the previous businesses on Front Street were lost to a fire in 1881, so the area was being rebuilt and Modesto was transforming from its prior reputation as a “wild and woolly” Western town, complete with vigilante justice and gunfights in the streets, to a more family-oriented and respectable community.

When Fred was three years old his parents presented him with a baby brother, George, and about a week before his ninth birthday his sister Matilda Marguerite–“Tilly”–was born. Tragically, about a week after that ninth birthday, February 10, 1891, his five year-old brother George died. I do not know the cause of death. He is buried in Modesto Citizens Cemetery. frederick-and-george-speik_39018248145_oThis photograph of Frederick and George must have been taken not long before he died, since George looks to be about five years old in the picture.

[Note: Photography was rare and expensive in the 19th century. I believe we owe the existence of so many portraits to the fact that Wilhelm’s family lived in Chicago and Emma’s father  in Westphalia. Surviving letters indicate that photographs were often promised and eagerly awaited by faraway family members.]

Life in the Speik household was not without strife, and not spared from tragedy, but Fred apparently remembered his early life fondly enough to recommend Stockton to his college football coach–and describe it in sufficiently glowing terms to convince Alonzo Stagg to retire there. The reliable daily sunshine of a Central Valley summer, its dry heat and balmy evenings, and the prospect of winters with no snow whatsoever, probably seemed very appealing when viewed from Chicago.

I have not been able to discover where young Fred attended elementary school in Modesto, but he attended the Northwest Division High School in Chicago, where he was elected captain of the football team in 1898. This change of locale was due to his parents’ divorce, which happened sometime in 1892 or 1893. His mother stayed on in Modesto with Tilly, running the tobacco store, while his father returned to his family in Chicago. When Fred turned sixteen he traveled to Chicago and joined his father’s household. By that time, William had remarried and was running a grocery store.

A Natural Leader

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Captain Fred Speik coaching a teammate

Fred, as captain of the high school football team, suffered an injury that sidelined him for a while. A newspaper account indicates that after he was injured he encountered “parental objections” to football playing–and also to his ambition to attend college. But even in his teens, Fred Speik’s character was strong and determined, and according to the article he managed to attend college “on his own resources.”  Once there, he tried out for the football team. Since he was still living in his father’s house, this may have caused some friction…unless the “parental objections” had come long-distance from his mother in California. The newspaper account is vague on this point!

FAS U of Chicago track At any rate, Fred Speik was a track star in high school as well as a football player, and may well have been attending the University of Chicago on a track scholarship. He competed and medaled in shot put, discus, and hammer events as well as playing water polo. But by the end of his freshman year he had “won his C” on the football team, and was on his way to stardom under Coach Stagg. He was Captain of the team in 1904, the year he also was selected First Team All-American.39657024311_24172cfc94_z (1)

Speik in captain’s cap behind Alonzo Stagg (on left)

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Academically, Fred Speik also shone. He was active in two fraternities, Nu Sigma Nu (medical fraternity) and Phi Delta Theta, was a member of the Owl and Serpent society, served several times as a class officer and on the Junior and Senior College Councils, and was a University Marshall. He received his Bachelor of Science degree in 1905 and his M.D. from Rush Medical College in 1907. He was valedictorian of the Rush Medical College Class of 1907.  This interesting image of the Class of 1907 shows Fred Speik 5th from the right in the lowest row of portraits, with “valedict.” under his name, and, in the faculty portraits, 2nd from the left in the shortest row, you will see his teacher and mentor, Dr. Bertram Sippy, inventor of the Sippy diet and Sippy powder (calcium and sodium bicarbonate) for treatment of peptic ulcers. Note: I provided a link to the online version of the image because it is “zoomable;” our copy of the image is more difficult to read.

By all accounts, Dr. Sippy was a mesmerizing speaker and a student favorite at Rush College. Fred Speik clearly was impressed by him, and Dr. Sippy seems to have been impressed with Fred as well, since the famous physician took young Dr. Speik into his practice in Chicago. Dr. Speik served as Dr. Sippy’s assistant from 1909-1912, at which time Fred moved his family–and his practice–to South Pasadena, bringing Dr. Sippy’s treatment regime to greater Los Angeles.

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Fred Speik circa 1906

Football and medicine were the preoccupations of Fred Speik’s twenties. He must have been a glamorous figure, and a hard-working one, since during the years surrounding his college studies he served as Assistant Coach for the University of Chicago football team (1905-1907) and Head Football Coach at Purdue (1909-1909). After his coaching stint at Purdue he married, joined Dr. Sippy’s practice, and focused on medicine from that point forward.

Edith Lawton, 1906

But of all the remarkable achievements of this brilliant and ambitious young man, his marriage to Edith Charlotte Lawton  may have had the greatest impact. Football glory comes and goes, medical theories fall in and out of favor, but history lasts–and Fred Speik wed an American blueblood whose lineage reached all the way back to the Mayflower on her father’s side, and to European nobility on her mother’s side. Probably none of this was on his mind when he married her, but so it was, and, through Edith, Fred’s children acquired this pedigree as well. Thus the son of immigrants, a first-generation American born in the humble home of cigar-makers, achieved the American dream–wealth, status, freedom, gracious living, social prominence, and a secure future for his offspring–through the force of his own personality, intelligence, and drive.

The Sippy Diet

Ladco-Laboratories-Inc-Sippys-Powder-VintageDr. Speik’s Los Angeles practice flourished and he became the personal physician to prominent citizens and movie stars, including John Barrymore, who suffered from peptic ulcers (his death certificate lists his final diagnosis as cirrhosis of the liver, pneumonia, atherosclerosis, and hemorrhaging ulcers). Fred faithfully advocated the Sippy Diet taught to him by his mentor, Dr. Sippy, and even followed it to some extent himself, believing it to be a preventive as well as a cure for stomach ulcers. The Sippy Diet is based on a theory that the stomach can be protected from the ravages of acid by coating it with fat, particularly dairy fat. Patients are instructed to consume three ounces of a milk-and-cream mixture every hour from 7:00 AM until 7:00 PM, and one soft egg and three ounces of cereal three times a day. This bland, fatty regimen is accompanied by large doses of magnesia powder and sodium bicarbonate powder. Unfortunately, the Sippy Diet remained popular for decades–“unfortunately” because by the 1960s papers were being published documenting that followers of the Sippy Diet were suffering heart attacks at twice the rate of patients who did not follow the diet. Eventually the medical profession realized that frequent meals of any kind result in the release of stomach acid, and therefore the Sippy Diet actually made ulcers worse–in addition to having disastrous effects on cardiac health. However, the diet was so entrenched in medical practice that it dominated ulcer treatment for six decades despite having no beneficial effect whatsoever.

Frederick A. Speik, M.D.

Fred Speik’s youngest son, Robert Lawton Speik–a lean and athletic man who has reached his nineties in excellent health–remembers that, as a child, meat was served in the Speik household with fat attached, not cut away before cooking as it is served today. He disliked the taste and texture of the fat and used to refuse to eat it. He remembers his father scolding him for not eating “the best part”–then taking the fat off Bobby’s plate and eating it himself.  Tragically, it may be no coincidence that Dr. Speik developed heart disease and suffered terrible pain from angina pectoris before he was sixty.

Dr. Speik, Physician and Businessman

Trinity Auditorium Building
Location of Dr. Speik’s office in downtown Los Angeles

Fred Speik’s specialty was internal medicine. Although he moved to Southern California as a young man, he was evidently already a distinguished physician and quickly found a foothold. In addition to his private practice, with offices in the brand-new  Trinity Auditorium Building, he taught medicine at the nearby campus of the University of Southern California from 1915-1919, and by 1918 was President of the Pasadena Medical Society and a member of the Clinical and Pathological Society of Los Angeles.

As Dr. Speik’s medical practice  and reputation grew, he also invested in stocks, purchased oil wells, and had a hand in other businesses that family and friends recommended to him or invited him to join as a partner. Most of these ventures through the 1920s were successful and added to the family’s local connections, social standing and prosperity. The Great Depression in the 1930s took a toll, but was not ruinous; Dr. Speik’s investments were diverse and his medical practice catered to a wealthy clientele.

Frederick Adolf Speik, April 1931

Family Life

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The Speiks at home in early 1929
The Speiks’ home in South Pasadena

1625 Fair Oaks Avenue was once the site of a large and beautiful home. The Speiks resided there from approximately 1914 until after Dr. Speik’s death in 1940, when it was sold to a developer who believed apartment homes would make him a larger profit than trying to find another wealthy buyer. The Depression still lingered, and wealthy buyers were few and far between. All that remains is the stone retaining wall.

Fred and Edith Speik were blessed with five children: Frederick Adolph Speik, Jr. (1910-1924), Madeleine Lawton Speik (1912-1977), Charlotte Ann Speik (1917-1994), Elizabeth Jane Speik (“Betty” 1924-2002), and Robert Lawton Speik (“Bobby” b. 1928). Fred Jr. and Madeleine were born in Cook County, Illinois; the others were born in Los Angeles County, California.

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Dr. Speik with 1936 Auburn Cabriolet

Dr. Speik was a member of the Los Angeles Athletic Club and the Alta Dena Country Club, but his stated hobby was “motoring,” a genteel and popular hobby for the well-heeled of the day. He owned a series of beautiful automobiles, including the convertible pictured here. His children had more active hobbies: Charlotte was an equestrienne, studied dance and appeared in amateur dramatics, Madeleine was a high school athlete as well as a scholar, Bobby sailed, and the entire family rode, appearing in photographs on horseback complete with appropriate attire. Home movies from the 1920s show Dr. Speik playing polo, enjoying time on the beach and at his vacation home on Balboa Island, and proudly showcasing his children and family enjoying the comfortable life he built for them. Photographs and movies also include the Rosenbergs, family employees who were held in considerable affection and esteem.

Mounting Burdens

No life is perfect, and sorrow afflicts even the most successful. In the summer of 1924, Dr. Speik’s only son, Fred Junior, contracted polio while at the beach with friends. The illness came on swiftly and Fred died within a week. At the time, the family believed the cause was diphtheria. It was Dr. Speik who insisted on a throat culture to positively identify the cause. The report did not come back until five days after Fred Jr. was buried. Dr. Speik carefully filled out his son’s amended death certificate, noting all the particulars and the identity of the doctor who had taken the culture. One can only imagine the anguish of a great physician who cannot save the life of his own son. It may have been matched, of course, by the anguish of Mrs. Speik, who had given birth to Betty just a few weeks earlier and was doubtless kept from her son’s bedside from fear of contagion. What a shocking blow Fred Jr.’s death must have been.

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Fred Speik with Bobby, 1929

Almost miraculously (considering that the Speiks were in their mid-forties), another son was born to them in 1928. But Dr. Speik’s health began to deteriorate while Bobby was still a child. He recalls his father suffering so terribly from angina that getting from the house to the car required a nitroglycerin tablet under the tongue, and that his father was unable to help him with his sailboat or do other things that required physical exertion. Meanwhile, financial worries were beginning to mount. By 1940 it was clear that investments made through the advice and assistance of a trusted family friend were not prospering. Protracted litigation regarding an ownership dispute on one of his oil wells (Sutphin v. Speik) also weighed on his mind and drained his resources. In March of 1940, the last appeal of the judgment against him–a Petition for Rehearing–was denied. Left with court costs, attorneys’ fees, and nearly $50,000 to pay the plaintiffs, Dr. Speik found himself relying on a large bank loan to cover his obligations.

On the morning of June 30, 1940, Dr. Speik left the house to meet with his accountant. Edith Speik expected him to come home for lunch. Lunch time arrived, but Dr. Speik did not. Mrs. Speik ordered lunch to be held for his arrival, and the family gathered at the dining room table to wait.

Bobby Speik, just turned twelve, heard sirens pass the house, traveling in the direction from which they expected his father to come. And then, a few minutes later, the phone rang.

Later, he remembers his mother telling him that his father felt that everything he trusted had failed him: his investments, his friends, even medicine itself, to which he had devoted his life. Ill and in pain, Frederick Adolph Speik hanged himself in his own surgical supply and was found by his accountant. He did it very neatly; folding his coat and tie … but he left no note. In such a case, painful questions linger. In a different time and place, would this have happened?  Dr. Speik’s father may also have been a suicide, so there may have been a genetic component–again, unaddressed by the medical knowledge of the day. So many businessmen took their own lives during the Great Depression that perhaps Fred Speik is just one more sad statistic, but his death made the papers nationwide–especially, of course, in Southern California and in Chicago, where he was remembered as a hero of the football field.

The family recovered. Fred’s widow sold the beautiful home on Fair Oaks Avenue and moved into a smaller house in San Marino, an elegant and quiet community near enough to South Pasadena that Bobby, the only child who remained at home, did not have to change schools. But the tragic and unforeseen loss of their breadwinner, mainstay and leader was hard on the whole family.

Fred Speik’s Legacy

The measure of a man lies in what he leaves behind. Fred Speik’s remarkable rise from humble roots to prosperity, respect and renown in one of America’s largest metropolitan areas, due to hard work, a superior intellect, drive and charisma, is a classic American success story. He married one of the first women to graduate from the University of Chicago, and their surviving children were also high achievers. Madeleine was a gifted scholar, athlete and leader at her high school and earned the highest grade point average the school had awarded in at least five years. She was one of only two students from South Pasadena High School to be accepted at Stanford, and she graduated from Stanford in 1933 summa cum laude. Charlotte also went to Stanford and became a librarian, first at the Huntington Memorial Library in Pasadena and eventually, combining her skills as a librarian with her artistic skills, headed the art department of the San Diego County Library. Betty, one of the first women to join the WAVES in World War II, became a Specialist – Link Trainer and helped to train fighter pilots for the U.S. Navy. And Bobby, in addition to his military service and career in commercial mortgage banking and as a senior fraud investigator for the FDIC, had a virtual second career as a mountaineer and wilderness expert. He served as chair of the mountaineering training committee for the Los Angeles chapter of the Sierra Club and as a volunteer wilderness ranger–and, in retirement, taught Wilderness Mountaineering at Central Oregon Community College. He is still going strong in Bend, Oregon.

hall of fameIn 2017, Fred Speik was inducted into the University of Chicago’s Hall of Fame. Here is the short video that introduced him at the induction ceremony: Fred Speik: Chicago Athletic Hall of Fame