Kaiser shipyards pioneered use of wonder drug penicillin

posted on July 23, 2014

Lincoln Cushing
Heritage writer

During World War II, Permanente Health Plan physician Morris Collen experimented with the treatment of pneumonia as he managed a large number of cases in the Kaiser Richmond shipyards. Many of the workers were in poor health to begin with, and the round-the-clock ship production in all sorts of weather exacerbated the situation. Dr. Collen reflected on that challenging period:[i]

When we first started there was no treatment for lobar pneumonia, pneumococcal type, except horse serum, and the people almost always got sick with serum sickness. It was a terrible treatment, but was all we had. Then… came sulfanilamide, and then sulfathiazole and sulfadiazine, and a series of sulfa drugs, and we began to treat pneumonias with them. That’s where we began, I would say, our first clinical research, evaluating different treatments for pneumonia.

Among those experimental treatments was a new drug, penicillin.

Vial of new "wonder drug" penicillin, published in Richmond Shipyard newsletter Fore 'n' Aft, 5/19/1944; copy courtesy Richmond Museul of History

Vial of new “wonder drug” penicillin, published in Richmond Shipyard newsletter Fore ‘n’ Aft, 5/19/1944

But this was wartime, and supplies were limited. Ninety percent went to servicemen fighting overseas, and only the remainder was allocated for distribution in the United States. Collen:

We had so many pneumonias and we had reported already in a journal that we were treating large series of pneumonias. So we got the first dose of penicillin in California, and treated a young man with a very severe lobar pneumonia, type 7. They all died from that, and this poor fellow was going to die. So we gave him this one shot of 15,000 units, and to this day I keep saying it was a miracle. He recovered.

The Richmond shipyard newsletter Fore ‘n’ Aft proudly announced the availability of this “wonder drug” in its May 19, 1944, issue:

Early this year a young shipyard worker developed a growth of pneumonia germs on his heart valves. At the Permanente Foundation Hospital he was given all the standard modern treatments that are regularly dispensed there to members of the shipyards’ Health Plan. Even with sulfa drugs he showed no improvement. The rare new drug, penicillin, was finally used. He recovered quickly.

Later a 15-year-old boy developed a blood clot on his brain, following a case of severe sinusitis. Death results in nearly 100 per cent of such cases. This time penicillin was used. The hospital record reads, “Patient completely recovered. Discharged from hospital.”

Until few months ago, the Army and Navy took the whole production of penicillin. When military stockpiles had been built, the National Research Council began to release penicillin for civilian needs. It is still difficult to obtain. Only three hospitals in this area are allowed a supply. They are the three hospitals in the area which treat the largest number of patients. The Permanente Foundation is one of the institutions which is allowed to buy it.

The use of penicillin is made possible here by the financial support of the members of the Health Plan. Science’s new wonder-cure is now at the service of shipyard employees.

While the war raged on two fronts, Collen published the seminal article on his civilian treatment experiences. His summary showed remarkable results:[ii] “A series of 646 consecutive patients with pneumococcic pneumonia were treated with combined sulfadiazine and penicillin therapy with a resulting mortality rate of 1.1 percent.”

A subsequent Fore ‘n’ Aft article on the benefits of medical research boasted: “By using the facilities provided for doctors under prepaid, group medical practice – to wit, the Health Plan -they evolved a complex treatment involving a combination of sulfa drugs and penicillin that is making medical history. Payoff: Human lives.”[iii]

Dr. Collen’s wartime use of penicillin not only saved lives, it provided sound medical evidence for future treatment methods.


 Short link to this article: http://bit.ly/1kcifjc 

Also see: “The History of WWII Medicine

[i]“Morris Collen, Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Oral History Project II, Year 1 Theme: Evidence-Based Medicine,” conducted by Martin Meeker in 2005, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 2007.

[ii] Morris F. Collen, M.D. and Alvin L. Sellers, M.D. “Penicillin Therapy of Pneumococcic Pneumonia – A Preliminary Report.” Permanente Foundation Medical Bulletin, April 1945.

[iii] “Research is Good Doctoring,” Fore ‘n’ Aft 10/19/1045.



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Goodbye and Happy Trails, Bret Maverick

posted on July 22, 2014

by Bryan Culp

Henry J. Kaiser and James Garner, 1959

Henry J. Kaiser and James Garner, 1959

Actor James Garner’s passing last weekend at age 86 brought new attention to his incredible body of work spanning half a century in Hollywood; his death also brings to mind Henry J. Kaiser’s bold foray into television.

In 1957, Kaiser bankrolled Garner’s star vehicle “Maverick,” a hugely popular television program. The largely unknown Garner played the amiable gambler Bret Maverick, a role that made him famous.

“Maverick” aired on Sunday evening prime time from 1957 to 1962 on the ABC network under the lone sponsorship of Kaiser Aluminum. The show, broadcast during the “Kaiser Aluminum Hour,” was an overnight sensation and the number-one-rated show in America for several seasons.

Henry J. Kaiser could not have been more pleased. He had taken a big gamble on “Maverick”. The single sponsorship network contract ran $7 million, a big commitment of advertising dollars for Kaiser Aluminum in 1957.

Kaiser polled his managers on the idea of underwriting a Sunday night TV western. There were 31 votes against and one in favor, Kaiser himself.

But Kaiser followed his own lights, as readers of these pages know. He was the first industrialist to champion employer-sponsored health care. He expanded roles for women in the workforce, and opened societal fissures for the pursuit of civil and equal rights.

Throughout his career, Garner moved smoothly from TV to movies and back again. He appeared in more than 50 films, including “The Children’s Hour” (1961) with Audrey Hepburn and “The Americanization of Emily” (1964) with Julie Andrews.

Garner also will be remembered as the bedeviled ex-con turned detective, Jim Rockford, in the long running series, “The Rockford Files,” in the 1970s. For more on his career see the remembrance in The New York Times.

It is not surprising then that Kaiser quickly took to Garner’s easy-going onscreen personality. The two men enjoyed each other’s company and Garner visited Kaiser at home in Lake Tahoe and in Hawaii.

So when you think fondly of the acting genius of James Garner – from his romantic scenes with Audrey Hepburn to his car chases in “Rockford Files” – recall that Henry J. Kaiser financed his first big break.

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1982 – KP Oakland and Richmond hospitals celebrated 40 years

posted on July 16, 2014
Oakland vid shot

Still from short video made for Oakland and Richmond KP hospitals’ 40th anniversary in 1982 Click on image to view

Anniversaries offer an opportunity to reflect on the past and anticipate the future. It is at such times that history helps an organization take a deep breath and focus again on its purpose and direction.

In 1982, two of the original Permanente Foundation hospitals – Oakland and Richmond – embarked on a campaign to celebrate “Caring and growing since 1942.” In addition to a special issue of the employee magazine KP Reporter, the hospitals produced a short video that swept from the World War II Kaiser shipyard health plan to the hugely expanded Oakland medical center, and beyond.

The video includes footage of wartime President Franklin D. Roosevelt chatting with Henry J. Kaiser at a ship launching, and founding physician Sidney R. Garfield, M.D., describing the goals of this remarkable health plan.

Short link to this article: http://bit.ly/1rs7AAt 

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Port Chicago blast still reverberates 70 years later

posted on July 14, 2014

By Ginny McPartland
Heritage writer


Steve Sheinkin, author of “The Port Chicago 50,” will present a program for young adults 2 p.m. Friday, July 18, at the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front national park in Richmond, Calif.

Four years ago on July 17, a group of local citizens sat in silence near the shores of Suisun Bay at Port Chicago, upriver from the San Francisco Bay near the city of Concord.

The National Park Service had assembled the group to dedicate a new memorial at the site of the horrendous ammunition ship explosions that killed 320 people, including 202 black sailors, 70 years ago this week.

Silence and peace prevailed in this moment in 2010 because the group was under the spell of Yosemite National Park Service Ranger Shelton Johnson, keynote speaker.

Johnson, a black man from Detroit, commanded the crowd’s attention with his urging for everyone to close their eyes and imagine being in the same spot in July 1944 before tragedy struck. “They would have heard the same breeze blowing and seen the same sights.”

Johnson played a soothing Native American tune on his cedar flute, creating a mood that could not have contrasted more with the horrifying scene the night of July 17, 1944.

Much water has gone under the bridge since the night hell visited the naval ammunition depot and two earsplitting explosions six seconds apart disintegrated two cargo ships – both built by Henry J. Kaiser shipyard workers.


U.S. Navy photo taken of the Port Chicago pier looking south after the explosions July 17, 1944, which killed 320 sailors and civilians.

All the men on the ships and the loading dock were killed instantly; most bodies were impossible to recover or identify. The SS E.A. Bryan, a Liberty ship launched from the Kaiser Richmond Shipyards Feb. 29, 1944, was “vaporized”.

The SS Quinault Victory ship was launched from the Kaiser Portland shipyard just one month before the disaster, June 17, 1944, and was on its maiden voyage. Pieces of the Quinault were scattered over a two-mile area adjacent to the port.

What could have been written off as simply a tragedy of war – careless sailors in a hurry to load much needed firepower for the Allied forces in the Pacific – became a flash point for the Civil Rights Movement.

The biggest catastrophe on the World War II Home Front, the Port Chicago disaster and its aftermath shined a spotlight on U.S. Navy personnel practices, especially the treatment of African-American sailors.

By policy, the Navy and all branches of the service were segregated in 1944. Black enlisted men were not eligible for promotion and their duties were restricted to menial tasks. The men assigned to load the ships at Port Chicago were all black; the officers at the installation were all white. None of the men assigned to Port Chicago had ammunition-loading training.


Pilings from the original Port Chicago pier still stand as a reminder of the explosions whose aftermath helped ignite the Civil Rights Movement. Photo by Ginny McPartland

Before the disaster, the black stevedores believed their work was relatively safe, as their officers had told them. But after they saw their colleagues killed, the men became afraid to go back to work unless the Navy improved conditions.

Three weeks later, the black sailors were assigned to load ammunition ships at nearby Mare Island; 258 refused. When told they would be charged with mutiny and could be executed, all but 50 of them agreed to go back to work.

In late 1944, the Navy beefed up munitions training and safety measures and assigned white enlisted men to join the black enlisted men on the rebuilt Port Chicago pier.

But it was too late for the black sailors who refused the assignment at Mare Island. Even though they agreed to go back to work, they were docked three months pay and given a “bad conduct” discharge, which meant they could not get veterans’ benefits.


A youth drum corps played for the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial Park dedication July 17, 2010. Photo by Ginny McPartland

Those who continued in their resistance became the subject of the biggest mutiny trial in U.S. Naval history and gained the moniker “The Port Chicago 50.” Their cause attracted the attention of Thurgood Marshall, then-attorney for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who attended the trial.

In an appeal of the verdicts, Marshall argued that racism played a role in the trial and the charge should not have been mutiny but at most insubordination. He was unsuccessful in his appeal of the mutiny verdicts, and the 50 were sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Later, the sentences were reduced to eight to 10 years, and after the war, in 1946, all but one was released from prison and took assignments in the Pacific. Also in 1946, the Navy became the first branch of the U.S. military to fully integrate its forces.

Although Marshall’s mutiny appeal didn’t succeed, he scored a big win for the Civil Rights Movement in 1954 as attorney in the Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, the landmark case that resulted in the end of segregation in public schools.


A lone rose washed up on the shore of the Suisun Bay at Port Chicago minutes after officials dropped a commemorative wreath off the pier, 2010. Photo by Ginny McPartland

As the Civil Rights movement gained momentum, Marshall played a key role, winning cases for civil rights activists: Browder v. Gayle, ended segregation on buses in 1956, and Garner v. Louisiana in 1961 protected peaceful civil rights demonstrators from prosecution under “disturbing the peace” laws.

These successes led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. President Lyndon B. Johnson, who signed the act, appointed Marshall the first African-American U.S. Supreme Court Justice in 1967.

In 1994, a Navy review of the explosion and aftermath found that racism had played a role in the work at Port Chicago and in the mutiny trials. However, officials let the convictions stand.


The National Park Service and the Friends of Port Chicago National Memorial are sponsoring events July 17, 18 and 19, to mark the 70th anniversary of the Port Chicago disaster.
Flyer for event July 17 and 19; flyer for July 18 event.

 Short link to this article: http://bit.ly/1oAvp58 

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