Historic Kaiser Permanente Artifact Donated to Smithsonian Institution

posted on December 14, 2017

Lincoln Cushing
Heritage writer


Multiphasic artifacts held by Diane Wendt; left, Dr. Sewell; right, Dr. Isaacs, and Dr. Ellison.

The clinking of glasses and din of conversation halted when the white-gloved archivists entered the room at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Securely bedded on their cart was that evening’s crown jewel, a small, open-faced wooden box. Stuffed with the distinctive punch cards used in mainframe computers, this artifact represented the essence of Permanente Medicine – the sweat of laborers getting their first health examination, the fusion of physician practices with modern electronic systems, and the efficiencies of a medical plan that proudly served a nation in crisis during World War II.

Historians from each of the Permanente Medical Groups arrive at the National Museum of American History.

This box and questionnaire cards were key elements of the Kaiser Permanente Automated Multiphasic Examinations.

Diane Wendt, Deputy Chair and Associate Curator of the Division of Medicine and Science, described the donation as “A humble but important object” in the history of American medicine when it was officially turned over at a Permanente Executive Leadership Summit event on Oct. 9, 2017.

The questionnaire cards represented an evolution of a battery of tests originally developed to handle the large influx of longshore workers that came into the health plan in the 1950s. In 1961, the U.S. Public Health Service awarded the Kaiser Foundation Research Institute a grant to study the automation of the multiphasic health testing it had already been conducting manually for 10 years. Members would now go through the screening stations with computer cards that got marked along the way.  At the end of the session, which took a couple of hours, there would now be a computerized medical record of their current health status.

Francis J. (Jay) Crosson, MD (founding executive director of The Permanente Federation) and Richard G. Rajaratnam, MD, explain display items.

Pauline Fox, Esq. (Executive Vice President and Chief Legal Officer, The Permanente Federation, LLC; Interim General Counsel, Colorado Permanente) and Kaiser Permanente historian Lincoln Cushing hamming it up with founding physician Dr. Sidney Garfield.

Those records helped create fundamental medical information. A major medical news story splashed across the world in 2016: “Historic Kaiser Permanente Data to Aid in Long-Term Study to Determine Extent of Ethnic Disparities in Brain Health and Dementia; new $13 million study funded by National Institute on Aging will revisit patients who were first screened as long as 50 years ago.” Yes, that deep data was compiled as part of the Automated Multiphasic examinations, showing the persistent value of that program.

Representing The Permanente Federation at the formal signing of the deed of gift were Geoffrey S. Sewell, MD, FACP (President and Executive Medical Director, Hawaii Permanente Medical Group, Inc.; Chairman, National Permanente Executive Committee, The Permanente Federation, LLC), Richard S. Isaacs, MD (Executive Director and CEO, The Permanente Medical Group; President and CEO, Mid-Atlantic Permanente Medical Group; Co-CEO, The Permanente Federation, LLC), and Edward M. Ellison, MD (Executive Medical Director/Chairman of the Board, Southern California Permanente Medical Group; Chairman of the Board and CEO, The Southeast Permanente Medical Group; Co-CEO, The Permanente Federation, LLC).


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A Car by Any Other Name

posted on December 6, 2017

Lincoln Cushing
Heritage writer


Henry J. Kaiser with early model “Henry J” car before it was named – badge on hood says “Name The Car.” 2/29/1950.

What’s in a name? For Cordelia Maxwell Bell, that was a $5,200,000 question.

The Berkeley, Calif., widow, who held 200 shares in the automobile company started by Henry J. Kaiser after World War II, sued the company for that tidy sum in a complaint over how it named its entry-level car.

The hefty lawsuit contrasted with the low price of the controversial new car, dubbed the “Henry J,” which promised to be a first-time new automobile for millions of Americans hungry for wheels after World War II.

“The name is so ridiculous that it can be justified on no other ground than to satisfy a deep ingrained meglomanic [sic] desire for personal publicity,” read Mrs. Bell’s complaint, which went on to disparage the well-publicized naming contest that had resulted in the moniker.

The public first heard about the naming contest in early November 1949, when full-page ads appeared in newspapers across the country. With pointing-hand dingbats and boldface type befitting the result of a presidential election, the homely ads bellowed:

The Kaiser-Frazer $200,000 Walter Winchell “Name the Car” Contest! Just name the new low-priced car in the low price field!

Kaiser-Frazer “Name the car” newspaper contest ad 11/7/1949

The contest promised a first prize of $10,000, plus a matching donation to the Damon Runyon Memorial Cancer Fund, named after an American newspaperman and author who had died of throat cancer in 1946. A prototype of the car featured a name badge that said — what else? — “Name The Car.”

Jack Mulller, historian for the Kaiser-Frazer Owners Club, International, explains the business reason behind the contest:

The Kaiser-Frazer management fully and honestly expected 1950 would be a profitable one for the company.  The contest was aimed at showing the public Kaiser-Frazer was not a failure and that it had the product that Americans wanted (at least according to surveys). By getting contest entrants into Kaiser-Frazer dealer showrooms, the dealers had a shot at perhaps making a sale of the moribund 1949 and 1950 model year products.

The car was first shown to the public at the February 1950 Chicago Automobile Show, identified only as “The Red Car,” but not for long. The first American car to be christened by the public was announced May 13, 1950. The naming contest winner was Frances Atkinson, the wife of a Denver university student.

The top 29 winners all proposed the same “Henry J” name, but only 10 got $500 checks because their submitted explanations were so compelling. Mrs. Atkinson had written that, to America’s millions, the name symbolizes “vision, courage, democracy at work.”

More than 1,000 people shared cash prizes, and almost $80,000 went to the cancer fund. Newspaper accounts quoted Mrs. Atkinson’s response to receiving the check at the award ceremony:

“I didn’t believe it ’til I felt it. Look at the zeroes on it! Like the wheels on a train.”

But Mrs. Bell didn’t believe it either and proceeded to sue for lots of zeroes. A May 16, 1950, newspaper article further explained:

Mrs. Bell doesn’t care for the name. She says in her complaint the $200,000 spent to get the name was “stupidly squandered” and she wants the money returned to the corporation. The $5,000,000 is to reimburse the corporation for the damage caused by the selection of “the wholly unfitting, improper and ridiculous name.”

Henry J newspaper ad, 9/29/1950

The suit sought to restrain officers and directors of the Kaiser-Frazer Corporation from adopting the “Henry J” name. It complained further that “the said name is well calculated to make it the butt of many jokes; that it is to be expected that radio comedians, cartoonists, and columnists will forthwith begin lampooning the said automobile.”

The litany of gripes continued, including that “… said name is so ridiculous that its adoption leads to tremendous ill will among the other contestants who obviously submitted better names, and that its adoption necessarily leads to the inference among the other contestants and plaintiff that it was no contest at all; that the name had been decided on before the contest started.”

Naming hubris or not, such things happen. The Ford Motor Company’s new 1957 model was named “Edsel” in honor of the founder’s son, Edsel B. Ford.

There’s no record of what happened with the lawsuit, but despite its claims, the car came out of the gate as a marketing success, and around 82,000 were produced in its first year. When the Henry J rolled out to the public in the fall of 1950, it represented the fruition of Henry Kaiser’s dreams. A September 29 newspaper article reported:

…It is the car that Henry J. Kaiser, board chairman, envisioned when Kaiser-Frazer was formed in 1945. Developed on the basis of postwar engineering advances, the Henry J models profited from prior years of experimentation with 50 prototypes built under Mr. Kaiser’s personal direction.

Kaiser said: “We have achieved such an automobile with new standards of value, economy, performance and appearance. Presenting this car is the realization of the proudest ambition of my life.”

Chalk up a win for the American public.

Photo of driver Rocky Fisher leaping his Henry J over the “man-killing ramp” at the 87th Street Stadium in Chicago, from pictorial souvenir booklet “Aut Swenson Thrillcade: World Champion Auto Devils,” 1953.

The Henry J was the lowest-priced new car on the market. In 1946, Henry J. Kaiser had borrowed $44 million from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation; one of the terms of the loan was that Kaiser-Frazer would produce an affordable car with a price tag of less than $1,300.

Unexpectedly, the spartan Henry J would become a favorite of car customizers because of its low resale value, lightweight, rugged chassis, and relatively roomy engine compartment. In the end, the car was not competitive in the American market, and production slowed. Manufacturing stopped in 1954 after 1,000 cars had been sold, and total output was 124,871.

Even though ultimately unsuccessful in the automobile industry, Henry J. Kaiser had left his mark in producing a car for the people.

Henry Kaiser and his sons talk about the new Henry J in 1950 film clip. 



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Clearing the Smoke at Kaiser Permanente

posted on November 20, 2017

Lincoln Cushing
Heritage writer


“Once you made it inconvenient, I finally took steps to quit.”
– Former smoker, employee at Kaiser Permanente, 1980s.

Medical professional at Kaiser Permanente smoking a pipe and inspecting an X-ray, circa 1960

It wasn’t that long ago that cigarettes were an accepted part of the cultural landscape. It’s well-known that tobacco companies used to promote endorsements from physicians (although none from Permanente Medical Group doctors), and smoking in hospitals was typical, Kaiser Permanente facilities included.

A 1960s brochure from the Kaiser Permanente hospital in Fontana, Calif., cautioned patients that “Bedding can burn. Be careful with cigarettes and matches.” Staff housekeepers in many offices complained that one of their most common problems was fires in waste cans, because people would dump cigarette butts that weren’t completely put out. As medical evidence about tobacco’s harm piled up, however, it became clear that the smoking habit should not be part of the environment in health care facilities.

Kaiser Permanente first drove smoking out of its facilities in the 1980s. At first, the offices were smoke-free, then whole buildings. On January 1, 1987, a no-smoking policy went into effect in all Kaiser Permanente facilities throughout the Northwest Region. But people still went outside to smoke.

Anxious prospective fathers’ ashtray, “Dream Hospital” newsreel, 1953

California passed AB-13 prohibiting smoking in places of employment in 1997. On January 1, 2000, Southern California Kaiser Permanente banned smoking anywhere on campus property (including outdoor areas like parking lots, which were not included in prior local or state laws) making it the first major health care organization in the country to adopt such a sweeping policy.

There’s good evidence that the harder you make it for people to smoke, the more likely they are to quit.

One example comes from a Kaiser Permanente office building in the Portland area in the mid-1980s. A designated smoking shelter had been set up outside of an office building to keep smokers out the rain. But to make a point, a large crane was brought in and removed the structure for a photo opportunity. They unbolted it and lifted it off, a clear message that a haven for smokers was really gone, and they were not going to be able to light up there any longer.

Kaiser Permanente Fontana hospital patient caution regarding smoking in hospital room, circa 1960

Grudgingly, the smokers moved out to the curbs. One employee commented, “You know, I might have still been smoking, but once you made it inconvenient, I finally took steps to quit. What am I doing walking out in the rain to do this, this is ridiculous.”

Current practices to discourage smoking, beyond signage, include features at facilities that encourage healthy activities such as walking paths and outdoor exercise stations.

Now, smoking cessation has new targets – for example, dealing with e-cigarettes and vaping – but the goal remains the same.  E.W. Emanuel, MD, of Mid-Atlantic Permanente Medical Group, sums it up well in his March 2017 blog that these new vehicles for tobacco delivery are still considered harmful to adolescents’ health. E-cigarettes contain nicotine and other potentially toxic chemicals, and teens who use them may be more likely to start smoking tobacco. Kaiser Permanente offers advice and programs for those wishing to break the tobacco habit.


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Patriot in Pinstripes: Honoring Veterans, Homefront, and Peace

posted on November 7, 2017

Lincoln Cushing
Heritage writer


Henry J. Kaiser speaking at Navy ship dedication, Northwest shipyards, circa 1943.

During World War II, Henry J. Kaiser was a major producer of America’s “arsenal of democracy.” The Kaiser Richmond shipyards launched 747 ships; the yards in the Portland, Ore., area produced 743. Kaiser built cargo ships, tankers, fighting ships, and airplanes. Biographer Mark S. Foster dubbed him a “patriot in pinstripes.”

But Kaiser was no hawk. His eye was always on the human impact of the war, and his vision was focused on postwar reconstruction. He expressed these themes in a speech he gave in December, 1943:

Ironical as it must appear, the war has taught us to employ our vast resources and to multiply them a million-fold by power and the machine. The war has taught us how to train men and women quickly for new trades so that the labor, which is displaced by the machine can be quickly adapted to new techniques. In the dread circumstances of war, we have brought employment to the peak, and efficiency to an all-time high…[but] If we rebuild a world of monopoly and special privilege, we will taste a defeat as bitter as a victory for the Axis powers.

His employment record of 190,000 home front workers was unequalled, embracing the most diverse workforce to date in American history. While it’s true that as the war progressed, Kaiser had no choice but to hire workers beyond the standard industrial pool, he also did so without hesitation. He’d managed a diverse workforce in his construction business (such as while roadbuilding in Cuba in the 1920s) and learned how to adjust the work process to fit those who were doing it. His personal philosophy was to encourage the full development of all people.

Real Heroes comic, published by The Parents Magazine Press, 1943. Henry Kaiser is honored, along with Admiral William “Bull” Halsey and General Brehon Somervell.

He pushed back as much as he could against the unions that resisted change (most notoriously, the shipyard Boilermakers Union initially refused to hire women and blacks as equals to white workers), and went to great lengths to “accommodate” the needs of the new workforce – child care centers, special medical education programs, ability-based job placement, affordable health care – all things that he believed were of value to the postwar society as well.

He was the patron sponsor of the integrated service organization for merchant mariners, who operated his ships and suffered terribly during the war.

As Allied victory began to appear certain, he redoubled his plans for the next phase of history. His October 17, 1944, speech “Jobs for All” in New York eloquently described his views:

On this one fact, there is unanimous agreement: every man in the American Forces has the right to come home not only to a job, but to peace. Anything less would be a denial of the true American way of life. Peace means so much more than a cessation of hostilities! Peace is a state of mind. It is based on the sense of security…Often I am classified as a dreamer, particularly when I talk about health insurance. To live abundantly and take part in a productive economy, our people must have health.

Let us be inspired by Henry Kaiser and honor our veterans, honor our home front workers, honor peace.


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