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‘I love life’: La Jollan Herb McCoy turns 100 with decades as a doctor seaside and on the sea

Dr. Herb McCoy turns 100 on Dec. 18 after a career filled with house calls in La Jolla.
(Courtesy)

Dr. Herbert “Herb” McCoy becomes a centenarian this week in a town he credits with enabling his passions.

McCoy, a resident of La Jolla’s Country Club neighborhood, was born Dec. 18, 1920, in Montclair, N.J. He graduated from Cornell University’s medical school in New York.

While on the residency staff and teaching at Cornell in the 1940s, McCoy was the member of a team who performed the first human cardiac catheterization, a procedure that involves injecting an opaque solution to outline the circulation to major organs in an X-ray.

“This led to our pioneer research in angiography,” he said. “These procedures are performed daily in large volume in institutions now all over the world.”

McCoy’s heart, however, was in house calls. “What I really had been wanting ever since I was a little boy ... was to be a doctor who made house calls and took care of people.”

When he was 7 or 8, McCoy had the mumps and his mother called a doctor to the house. “He took care of me and gave me so much confidence and comfort that I said, ‘That’s what I want to be when I grow up, instead of a fireman,’” he said.

McCoy moved to La Jolla in 1950 after a fellow Cornell alumnus said a retiring doctor here needed an associate. “The medical community needed an internal medical specialist,” McCoy said, “and I responded. That’s how it all began.”

Dr. Herb McCoy, pictured at La Jolla Shores in 1960, is a surfer, scuba diver, swimmer and beach jogger.
Dr. Herb McCoy, pictured at La Jolla Shores in 1960, is a surfer, scuba diver, swimmer and beach jogger.
(Courtesy)

La Jolla appealed to McCoy after his first trip here in college, when he was a houseguest of his college roommate, whose family gave him a summer membership to the La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club during his stay, as well as a car.

McCoy took up surfing, briefly dated actress Rita Hayworth and was enamored of the palm trees and the beach.

“He got a look at La Jolla and thought, ‘Maybe I could succeed out here,’” said his wife, Lani McCoy.

Herb took over the internal medicine practice in 1950 as planned. He worked as an on-call doctor for the Beach & Tennis Club as well as a physician for many of the senior citizen communities in La Jolla.

He treated celebrities such as Gregory Peck, Raquel Welch, Nikolai Sokoloff and Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss), and countless other patients. “I loved being a doctor and I loved making house calls, and this town is small enough so you can do it,” he said.

Herb said he was a member of the naval reserve since Pearl Harbor and is a retired captain in the medical corps of the Navy.

In 1965, he was chosen as medical officer for the naval SEALAB II project, which involved “monitoring the health of U.S. astronauts being sent down to the bottom of the ocean,” Lani said.

The organizers of the study, which took place off La Jolla, asked Herb to become an astronaut, but preliminary testing revealed a propensity for motion sickness that prevented him from being approved.

His motion sickness “probably saved his life,” Lani said. He would have been slated for the 1967 Apollo I mission that never flew after a fire during a launch rehearsal killed all three crew members, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee.

Herb and Lani were married in 1970 after he and his first wife of 30 years, Lois, had divorced. The newlyweds raised Herb and Lois’ seven children together, and they now have 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren spread “all over the planet,” Herb said.

“We’re a very close family,” Lani said. Family members from England to the Caribbean to Tahiti meet every Sunday at 11 a.m. Pacific time via Zoom for a two-hour video call.

From left: Dan, Lani, Herb and Marianne McCoy
Dan, Lani, Herb and Marianne McCoy (from left). Herb and Lani and their children and families have a two-hour Zoom call every Sunday morning.
(Courtesy)

Herb and Lani have seen much of the world since Herb’s retirement, mainly via cruise ship. The seasickness that kept him out of space became easier to manage with medication and time.

“The next 25 years in retirement, I served as a voluntary ship’s physician, traveling all over the world,” Herb said. “Eight trips to the Antarctic, and I’ve swum at the North Pole.”

The couple’s travels include journeys to Tibet, the Mediterranean and the South Pacific, along with taking up scuba diving.

Nowadays, Herb still takes to the water whenever he can, swimming in the ocean or at the Beach Club, although it’s “tapered off” in recent months, he said.

He’s “waiting for my [coronavirus] vaccine so we can get back” to outdoor activities, he said.

When asked for the secret to his longevity, Herb pointed to Lani. Also, he said, he engages in the habits he long espoused to his patients: “no drinking, no smoking, and jogging the beach.”

When asked about his most memorable decade, Herb said “the last century, because of the advances in science and technology.” The most important advancement, he said, was the discovery of antibiotics. He also noted his own research.

“I love life,” he said. “I’d go another hundred if I could spend it with Lani.”

Herb normally spends his Dec. 18 birthday in Hawaii in the room saved for the couple at their usual resort.

This year’s celebration will be “very Zoomy,” he said — a virtual version of the practice he knows so well: the house call. ◆