Atomedics – the future hospital that never was

posted on March 4, 2015

Lincoln Cushing
Heritage writer

Part one of two part series

Letterhead graphic, Atomedic Research Center, 1960; [TPMG P791]

Atomedics logo, from 1960 letterhead; note caduceus in center of atom.

Kaiser Permanente announced on February 18, 2015 that it had joined the ranks of the nation’s top renewable energy users, having completed several agreements to purchase enough renewable energy to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent nationwide by the beginning of 2017 — three years ahead of schedule.

That’s great news. But in the early 1960s, “renewable energy” was not much of a priority, and the industrial juggernaut that propelled the country after the end of World War II was fixated on the alternative power source of the period – atomic energy. The U.S. government and many industries sought ways to exploit the miracle of fission, and hospitals were enticed by this everlasting power.

This issue would attract two parts of Henry J. Kaiser’s far-flung organization – the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan and Hospitals (as cutting-edge users of this technology) and Kaiser Aluminum, since several of the proposals sought to use the new geodesic domes as shells.

One of the primary proponents of combining atomic power and health care was Canadian-born Hugh C. MacGuire, M.D., of the Atomedic Research Center. He was described in news accounts as being a leading pediatric surgeon, and developed the “Atomedic” concept in 1953 with the noble purpose of making health care accessible and affordable.

His prototype aluminum hospital was designed to serve about 90 percent of the average community’s hospital and clinical needs, with the remaining 10 percent of highly critical or specialized cases referred to major medical centers. Atomedic’s lightweight metal construction would make possible an airlift of the entire 22- to 44-bed structure to any site in the world in a matter of hours. After assembly and use, the building could be disassembled and moved to a new location with relative ease, including the self-contained nuclear power plant.


Floorplan, Michael Hack Associates. “Pilot Hospital” Atomic Research Center prospectus from Atometics, 1960. “Reactor” is in the center.

The architectural details were handled by Atlanta’s Michael Hack Associates. This was a fresh and complex design challenge – a lightweight, strong, and versatile self-contained modern hospital. The nuclear reactor should be “designed so that they may be parachuted into inaccessible areas.” Electronic patient monitoring would utilize state-of-the-art sensors, data processing, and communications systems. The facility would rest on a hollow pontoon foundation that could be filled with air (for floating on water), potable water, or earth.

Atomedic held two earlier “conceptual” symposia in 1958 and 1959, but it was in 1960 that the project began to take off.

On January 17, 1960, This Week magazine (a nationally syndicated supplement in Sunday newspapers between 1935 and 1969) ran a three-page article extolling the virtues of “The Hospital of Tomorrow.” It was endorsed by Lewis M. Orr, president of the American Medical Association, who gushed:

The proposed Atomedic Hospital is an exciting and dramatic concept which has far-reaching implications for the future practice of medicine. The project is geared to the coming space age and geared, also, to the prime objective of medicine – supplying the highest quality medical care at the lowest practical cost.


Atomic sterilizer detail, “The Hospital of Tomorrow,” This Week magazine,1/17/1960.

The article boasted of cost savings resulting from eliminating staff and streamlining processes. Atomedic would have no laundry (“The Atomedic Hospital will use disposable cellulose-fiber ‘linens’ and disposable eating utensils”) and reduced kitchen staff, replaced by “wall cookers” for frozen food prepared elsewhere. Sanitary? You bet. “The hospital will be kept germ-free with ultra-violet light or a small cobalt-60 radioactive unit, which will sterilize the air and instruments. One graphic was captioned: “Nurse puts instruments on belt which takes them past radiation unit.”

Kaiser Permanente founding physician Dr. Sidney Garfield attended a conference on Atomedics in Montgomery, Alabama, on Nov. 15-16, 1960. Dr. Garfield’s title at the time was “Vice President in Charge of Construction, Kaiser Foundation Hospitals.” Also present was Mr. J.R. Shaw, from Kaiser Aluminum’s Atlanta office.

Dr. Garfield was interviewed in the local newspaper, which led with his endorsement for Atomedic: “A pioneer in non-conventional hospital construction Wednesday termed Dr. Hugh C. MacGuire’s proposed Atomedic Research Center a ‘magnificent idea.’ “


Brand-new Kaiser Permanente Walnut Creek hospital lobby, 1953.

Dr. Garfield was in fact deeply interested in improved hospital design, and had been ever since 1933 when he began his practice in the remote Mojave Desert. Note the similarity between his 1953 circular lobby for the new Walnut Creek, Calif., hospital and that of Atomedic. Years later he humbly admitted to the New York Times magazine “Hospital design is sort of a hobby of mine.”

Soon afterwards Dr. Garfield wrote to Dr. MacGuire and told him that he would “…discuss the entire subject with the various Kaiser executives.”

Part two (March 12):
Did Kaiser Permanente join in building an atomic hospital?

Material for this story culled from The Permanente Medical Group archives.

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Kaiser ship was first through Panama Canal, 1914

posted on February 26, 2015

Lincoln Cushing
Heritage writer


ancon@culebra 1914

S.S. Ancon in the Culebra Cut, Panama Canal, 1914

One hundred years ago the United States celebrated a major engineering and political accomplishment – the completion of the Panama Canal. The feat was the centerpiece of two giant expositions in California; the Panama-California Exposition (January 1, 1915-January 1, 1917) in San Diego and the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (February 20, 1915-December 4, 1915) in San Francisco. Vestiges of those events still remain in their respective cities, and historical societies have mounted centennial retrospectives.

One little-known fact is that the first ship to formally steam through those locks from ocean to ocean was the S.S. Ancon – later to become the S.S. Permanente, part of the beginning of Henry J. Kaiser’s utilitarian cargo fleet.

Built in 1901 as the S.S. Shawmut in Maryland, the steamer (along with a sister ship, the S.S. Tremont) was bought to carry cement for the construction of the canal under the Panama Railroad Company’s Panama Railroad Steamship Line. They were renamed for the two ocean termini. The Shawmut became the S.S. Ancon, a township in Panama City where the canal opens to the Pacific Ocean. The Tremont became the S.S. Cristobal, named for the Atlantic port city.


Commemorative coin with S.S. Ancon from the Panama-California Exposition, 1915

The Ancon wasn’t the first vessel to navigate the canal from ocean to ocean, but it was designated as the first honorary official ship to complete the transit from the Atlantic to the Pacific, which it did on August 15, 1914 with some 200 dignitaries aboard. However, the elaborate, festive plans – which originally included major U.S. warships and even the U.S. president – fell through when the First World War broke out on July 28.

During the war, the Ancon was commissioned into the Navy as the U.S.S. Ancon and ferried troops home from Europe before returning to canal service. In 1939 Henry J. Kaiser bought the Ancon and the Cristobal for his nascent Permanente Steamship Company.

The Ancon was renamed the S.S. Permanente, fitted to deliver bulk dry cement rather than cement loaded in sacks (a Henry Kaiser innovation), and went into service in March, 1941, under contract with the U.S. Navy delivering cement to Hawaii. She survived the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and her cargo was vital to the rebuilding of that devastated facility. She was eventually scrapped at the end of the war, replaced by the more modern S.S. Permanente Silverbow and the S.S. Permanente Cement.

Thanks to Steve Gilford for help on this article.

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Black World War II shipyard workers play ball

posted on February 20, 2015

Lincoln Cushing
Heritage writer


Boilermakers A-26 catcher. June 18, 1942.

Boilermakers A-26 catcher, Oakland, June 18, 1942. Photo by E.F. Joseph.

Some pictures may tell a thousand words, but others are mute until prompted to their stories.

Recently I’ve had the pleasure of working with a remarkable collection of vintage photographs taken by Emmanuel Francis Joseph. Born on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, E.F. Joseph was among the first professional African American photographers in the San Francisco Bay Area. He documented personal and public events, mostly within the local black community, from 1930 until his death in 1979.

His life’s work almost went to the recycler, but social services organizer and family friend Careth Reid stepped in and saved it. Since 1980 she has been the caretaker of the approximately 10,000 large-format film negatives which will eventually go to the Special Collections Library at San Francisco State University for full processing and cataloging. (Reid earned her master’s degree in social science from SFSU in 1970.)

The World War II Kaiser shipyards in Richmond, Calif., were the crucible for shaping what today we know as Kaiser Permanente, and during the war Joseph worked in the shipyards as a photographer for the Office of War Information. Many of the best known photos of black employees in those yards were taken by Joseph, including iconic black women welders and launchings of ships named for famous African Americans.

Boilermakers A-26 team with manager, June 18, 1942.

Boilermakers A-26 team [with manager and coach?], Oakland, June 18, 1942. Photo by E.F. Joseph.

But research using the negatives under Reid’s care is expanding the documented history of the black shipyard workers beyond the shipyards. These photos collectively compose a treasure trove for amplifying the historical record.

Joseph filed his negatives in small annotated paper envelopes, which Ms. Reid has sorted into scores of subjects; one set of negatives under “Unions” was labeled “Boiler Maker Baseball Team” dated June 18, 1942.

We know that the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders and Helpers of America was the largest and most powerful union in the shipyards, and that it refused to hire black workers (and, at first, women as well). But wartime pressure to expand the workforce resulted in the creation of the shameful separate-and-unequal “auxiliary unions.” There were three such auxiliaries in the Bay Area: A-26 (Oakland), A-36 (Richmond), and A-33 (San Francisco).

Boilermakers A-26 pitcher, with Herrick Iron Works sign in background. June 18, 1942.

Boilermakers A-26 pitcher, with Herrick Iron Works sign in background. June 18, 1942. Photo by E.F. Joseph.

The snappy jerseys in these photos tell us that this team was from A-26, composed largely of workers at the Moore Dry Dock Company. During the war Moore built over 100 ships for the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Maritime Commission; it ceased operations in 1961.

Joseph did not record the location of this shoot, but one photo offers a clue. A large sign is visible across the street on the side of the Herrick Iron Works, which at that time was at 1734 Campbell Street in Oakland. So, this field was on the site of the present Raimondi Park, a City of Oakland recreational field named after Ernest “Ernie” Raimondi, a white Moore Dry Dock worker and former professional baseball player on a Moore-sponsored company team. Raimondi was killed in combat while serving in the U.S. Army in France on Jan. 26, 1945, and the park was dedicated in 1947. Moore Dry Dock was located less than a mile away at the foot of Adeline Street on the Oakland Estuary.

In one dynamic photo of a bunt, the setting summer sun casts a long shadow of E.F. Joseph and his camera tripod. More than 70 years later, my white-gloved hands are carefully loading that 4×5-inch silver-based film negative into a digital scanner.

Boilermakers A-26 team, with E.F. Joseph shadow. June 18, 1942.

Boilermakers A-26 team, with photographer shadow. June 18, 1942. Photo by E.F. Joseph.

Who were these men? Did any of them move up into the postwar Negro League? Are there any E.F. Joseph photos to be found about a Kaiser Richmond A-36 team? These are just some of the questions that are opened up by these remarkable photographs. History never sleeps, and research finds new paths. Batter up.


Photographs courtesy Careth Reid / E.F. Joseph Collection. All rights reserved.

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Henry J. Kaiser confronts labor practice of “colored laborers in bondage”

posted on February 12, 2015

Lincoln Cushing
Heritage writer


The Mississippi River flood of 1927 has been called “the most destructive river flood in the history of the United States,” and major efforts were launched in the following years to rebuild levees. The Warren Brothers contracting firm invited Henry J. Kaiser’s company to share in a minor portion of the extensive levee repair and maintenance work between Tennessee and Mississippi.

At first Kaiser hoped to use his powerful LeTourneau earthmoving machinery, but the Mississippi mud stuck to the equipment in a most uncooperative manner. The project ended using human and animal labor, which frustrated Henry Kaiser’s “get things done quickly” style. But accepting the forces of nature and people would be a good lesson for his road-building projects in Cuba from 1928 to 1930.

Kaiser Le Tourneau earth movers

LeTourneau heavy construction equipment at Philbrook Dam (near Paradise, Calif.) circa 1926.

Working in the South was uncomfortable for Henry Kaiser for ethical reasons as well. He was an unconventional employer who believed that “labor relations were nothing more than human relations” and was one of the most progressive industrial leaders of his time regarding equal treatment of women and people of color. Those values were challenged during this contract.

Leonard Blaikie, labor writer for the Oakland Tribune, wrote this vignette for a special insert on the opening of the Ordway Building (currently the main headquarters of Kaiser Permanente) on Feb. 28, 1971. Alonzo Benton (“A.B.”) Ordway was Henry J. Kaiser’s first employee and longtime and trusted operations manager.

Kaiser and Ordway ran into another practice which went against their grain while building small levees along the Mississippi River, between Memphis and Natchez, in the late 1920s. In addition to lacking the right equipment for the job, Ordway said they found they were at a disadvantage because they believed in paying their laborers their hourly wages in cash.

“Most of the Southern contractors, to all intents and purposes, held the colored laborers in bondage,” he explained.

“By this I mean the workers had to purchase all food and supplies on credit from the contractors at prices higher than the going rates. Therefore, the labor costs for the Southern contractor were nowhere near ours.

“None of us liked the area and we were glad to get out in 1929.”


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