By Steve Gilford, Senior Consulting Historian
Southern California physicians to replace plaque dedicated in 1992 to commemorate Sidney Garfield’s Contractors General Hospital
Plaque placed in 1992 commemorating Sidney Garfield MD’s desert hospital. Recently, thieves pried the 110-pound marker from the boulder, probably planning to turn the bronze into cash.
I’ve recently returned from Southern California where I assessed the damage vandals and thieves wreaked to the historical marker near the site of Dr. Sidney Garfield’s 1933-built Contractors General Hospital.
This location is significant because it’s where Kaiser Permanente’s pioneer physician first discovered how prepaid, preventive medicine could make health care more affordable.
The 110-pound bronze plaque, placed at the historical site 21 years ago, has been pried off its base and stolen, presumably for the value of the metal. This is another occurrence of the national trend of thieves dismantling historical markers to turn bronze to cash.
I traveled to the desert not only to evaluate the loss but also to arrange for a replacement plaque. My journey was successful: I found a safe location for a new plaque and an enthusiastic benefactor to pay the bill.
In 100-plus-degree heat that is usual for the area, I surveyed nearby Chiriaco Summit, an active way station for desert travelers, with Margit Chiriaco Rusche, the daughter of founders Joe and Ruth Chiriaco. We found an appropriate site for a new plaque in an island of green vegetation which many visitors pass.
Locating historic hospital site
For me, this mission was personal. Twenty-seven years ago, I uncovered the hospital site where, in 1933, Kaiser Permanente’s founding physician had started his prepaid health plan for workers on the Colorado River Aqueduct Project.
Google Map shows the vicinity of where the Contractors General Hospital stood in 1933.
In 1986, Stanley Ragsdale, self-described “desert rat” and owner of Desert Center in Southern California, accompanied me on an expedition to find the long lost site of Garfield’s hospital, six miles west of the little town on Interstate 10.
As we approached the area, we could make out the foundation outlines, which were all that remained of the facility abandoned in the late 1930s. As someone with experience in archeological digs, I headed for the nearby garbage pit, in which I found medical artifacts that positively identified the site.
With this information and other research, I prepared an application and supporting materials for the site’s designation as a historical landmark. The California State Historical Commission unanimously authorized an official plaque recognizing the importance of the tiny hospital to American medicine.
In a 1986 ceremony, Sally Garfield Blackman, Dr. Garfield’s elder sister, unveiled the bronze plaque attached to a boulder near the spot where the once bustling hospital had stood.
Southern California physicians sponsor replacement plaque
Over the past two decades, the dusty town of Desert Center, with its two-block long main street, has fallen on hard times. The restaurant, gas station, general store, and ice cream stand are all gone. With no one around the abandoned town, the plaque was easy pickings for thieves, and several weeks ago they struck.
Raymond Kay, MD, friend of Garfield and early leader of the Southern California Permanente Medical Group, playing ping pong on the hospital site.
I mentioned the loss to Paul Bernstein, MD, San Diego area medical director for the Southern California Permanente Medical Group. Bernstein (Twitter: @sdthinkbig), personally interested in the history of Contractors General, is as chagrined as I am by the marker’s disappearance.
He approached the Southern California Permanente Medical Group, and they have agreed to replace the plaque as part of SCPMG’s 60th anniversary celebration in September. This year also marks the 80th anniversary of the hospital’s founding.
Chiriaco motorist stop fitting site for new historic marker
Joe and Ruth Chiriaco founded their first store the same year that Dr. Garfield opened Contractors General Hospital; they knew the hospital and Dr. Garfield well.
Ruth Chiriaco, a registered nurse, had worked in nearby Indio with Betty Runyen, Dr. Garfield’s first nurse. Having met the Chiriacos in my previous research, I was pretty sure the family would be amenable to putting the new plaque near their business that includes a store, restaurant and gas station.
This fall, Dr. Garfield’s favorite nephew and closest living relative, Dr. Robert Blackman, and Blackman’s two sons will participate in the dedication, as will nurse Betty Runyen’s three children. Betty’s daughter Susan, a nurse with Kaiser Permanente in Hawaii, has just finished a novel based on her mother’s life at Contractors General Hospital.