By Ginny McPartland, Heritage writer
Part of a series about our regional origins
Kaiser Permanente picked J. Harper Gaston, MD, a Georgia native and graduate of Emory University, to test the Atlanta metropolitan area waters and bring the Health Plan to Georgia in 1984. Dr. Gaston re-established his life in Georgia after 23 years with The Permanente Medical Group in Northern California.
His wife, Anne Hendrick Gaston, MD, a Permanente pediatrician in Northern California, also returned to Georgia in 1984. Harper Gaston reconnected with friends, colleagues and institutional representatives to build a strong base for The Southeast Permanente Medical Group, established in 1985.
Kaiser Permanente of Georgia’s physicians saw their first patients in the Northlake Medical Office in DeKalb County, opened in October 1985. Three months later, Kaiser Permanente opened the Cumberland medical office, and then established a facility near the Southwest Community Hospital to serve residents there, who were mostly African-American.
Gaston selected several prominent members of the Atlanta community to serve on Kaiser Permanente of Georgia’s Board of Directors: banker John W. McIntyre; physician Louis Wade Sullivan, who was also dean and director of the Morehouse College of Medicine and later appointed secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services); and community leader Laura Jones Hardman.
Kaiser Permanente acquired financially failing Maxicare Georgia, a health maintenance group with 35,000 members in 1988, and the Health Plan grew from 265 members at the end of 1985 to 100,000 members by 1989. Throughout the 1990s the Atlanta area continued to boom, and by 2010 the Health Plan membership had expanded to almost 250,000.
In recent expansions, Kaiser Permanente of Georgia has added new facilities in 13 locations. Today, Kaiser Permanente has 28 medical facilities in the 28-county Atlanta metropolitan area, and 400 physicians taking care of its members.
Gastons enjoyed illustrative California careers
As a Permanente pediatrician and neonatologist, Anne Gaston taught medical students and residents in the Intensive Care Nursery at University of California in San Francisco for 20 years. In 1979, she became professor of pediatrics there. She also served as director of the Intensive Care Nursery at Marin General Hospital under a special contract with The Permanente Medical Group.
Harper Gaston, an internist/cardiologist, served as physician-in-chief at Kaiser Permanente Hayward Medical Center before returning to Georgia in 1984. He served with the California Heart Association for 20 years, taking a term as president, and was an adviser to the Emory University System of Healthcare Board of Directors and a member of the Emory Board of Visitors. He retired from The Southeast Permanente Medical Group in 1992.
Emory recognizes Gastons for community service
For the Gastons, moving back to Georgia after a quarter of a century in California enabled them to renew their commitment to the Emory Medical School community that had helped launch their careers.
In 1996, both Harper and Anne Gaston were honored by the Emory University Medical Alumni Association with its Award of Honor for their career-long community activities in Georgia and California.
Since 1994, the Gastons have sponsored the Gaston Service Award Scholarships for Emory medical students who have amassed impressive records of community service.
Roots in medicine go back to early California
In 2009, Harper Gaston published A Heritage Lived up to & Beyond, a collection of stories told to Gaston by his grandmother Louise Frederick Hays, who was the Georgia State Historian from 1937 to 1951.
In 1942, Hays wrote an article about Gaston’s great-great grandfather, her grandfather, Benjamin Franklin Keene, MD, the first president of the California Medical Society in 1856. First published in 1942 by the CMA, it was reprised in 2004 in The Permanente Journal, the quarterly publication of the Permanente Medical Groups.
Dr. Keene, a Georgia physician, went to California in 1849 to seek his fortune in the Gold Rush. After a mining stint, he settled in El Dorado County to practice medicine. He represented the county in the California Senate for three terms, leaving office in 1856.
Also in 1856, he helped found the medical society that was the precursor of the California Medical Association. Dr. Keene died of paralysis, also in 1856, and was buried in Placerville, Calif. In 1912, Hays located the grave, and CMA replaced his broken headstone in 1923.