Sixty years ago this week, seniors from the first graduating class of the Kaiser Foundation School of Nursing passed the torch to the junior class in a capping and candle lighting ceremony reported in the local newspaper, the Oakland Tribune.
The school was dear to the hearts of industrialist Henry J. Kaiser and his wife, Bess, who established the Permanente Foundation Health Plan (later renamed Kaiser) at the beginning of World War II. Its founding purpose was to provide funds for medical research and educational and community service programs in addition to creating Kaiser Permanente.
Mr. and Mrs. Kaiser personally presented the diplomas to the nursing school graduates in 1950.
Bess Kaiser died in 1951, and the honor guard at her funeral service was made up nurses from the nursing school.
Kaiser sent each member of that honor guard a St. Christopher Medal and a hand written note that read, in part, “…The Honor Guard service was a most beautiful thing and…it gave me strength and courage… Mrs. Kaiser would want to wish you that health and safety may always accompany you and she will be happy knowing that you can have the blessing of this St. Christopher Medal.”
By Tom Debley
Director of Heritage Resources
The world was changing dramatically 65 years ago this week. The war in Europe was over, and Japan would surrender within a few weeks. In Richmond, Calif., the last Victory ship built in the Kaiser Shipyards was readied for launch on July 28. Above the ship, the S.S. Burbank, the word ‘Aloha’ in giant letters was suspended between two cranes.
An orchestra played Hawaiian music, guests wore leis made from fragrant pikake blossoms, and Henry J. Kaiser’s wife, Bess, cracked the traditional flower-wreathed bottle of champagne across the bow.
“In launching the last of the Victory ships, we are not registering a finality,” said Kaiser, “but beginning the second phase in the achievements of our industrial family.”
Looking on were Kaiser’s two adult sons, Edgar and Henry Jr.
It was said 10,000 people were on hand, including shipbuilders who had worked on the very first Victory ship. They sang “Aloha” to Mr. and Mrs. Kaiser and, as the S.S. Burbank slid down the way into San Francisco Bay, flowers tossed from the deck showered the crowd.
The symbolism of the “Aloha” theme has only grown over time. The Hawaiian word is used to say both goodbye and hello. America was saying farewell to World War II, and greeting the post-war world. Henry Kaiser was leaving shipbuilding and embarking on new ventures—including opening the Permanente Health Plan, later renamed Kaiser, to the public. And he was advocating for national reforms that would make health insurance available to all Americans.
Indeed, days before the launch of the S.S. Burbank, Kaiser announced he had drafted a legislative proposal that he presented to several U.S. Senators to create a national program of voluntary prepaid medical care.
“…The greatest service that can be done for the American people,” said the preamble to Kaiser’s 1945 proposal, “is to provide a nationwide prepaid health plan that will guard these people against the tragedy of unpredictable and disastrous hospital and medical bills, and that will, in consequence, emphasize preventive instead of curative medicine, thereby improving the state of the nation’s health.”
These events also were coupled with opening the Permanente Health Plan and Hospitals to the public under the leadership of physician co-founder Sidney R. Garfield. Thus, this week became the springboard for the 65 years—to date—of continually defining the future of health care with the growth and leadership of Kaiser Permanente . (See: Opening a Prepaid Health Plan to the Public 65 Years Ago this Month.)
This would be Kaiser’s ultimate legacy.
As the preeminent California historian, Kevin Starr, has noted, “After all the things he did—the great dams he had built, the great waterways, the unprecedented work in the shipyards—Kaiser knew that this was the thing that would last.”
Or, as Kaiser, himself, said on several occasions in the last years of his life in Hawaii, “Of all the things I’ve done, I expect only to be remembered for…filling the people’s greatest need—good health.”
National health care legislation failed in 1945 and many times thereafter, but Kaiser, Dr. Garfield and their successors have persisted in advocating for heath care for all ever since and saw President Obama sign the Affordable Care Act last March 23. That came exactly 65 years and 20 days after the official date of Henry J. Kaiser’s original “Proposal for a Nationwide Prepaid Medical Plan Based on Experience of the Permanente Foundation Hospitals,” which had been prepared in consultation with Dr. Garfield.
Today, Kaiser and Garfield are honored for their contributions on the Home Front of World War II at the Rose the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park for making prepaid medical care “a legacy of the WWII Home Front.”
(Special thanks to Veronica Rodriguez, Museum Curator at the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park, for locating and sharing use of the program images for the launch of the S.S. Burbank Victory, July 28, 1945.)
Opening a Prepaid Health Plan to the Public 65 Years Ago this Month, Kaiser Permanente Begins Its Post-World War II Lifeposted on July 22, 2010
By Tom Debley
Director of Heritage Resources
Sixty-five years ago this month the curtain was about to fall on the dreadful years of World War II, and Dr. Sidney R. Garfield and industrialist Henry J. Kaiser were raising the curtain on their plans to expand their prepaid Permanente Foundation Health Plan—later renamed Kaiser Foundation—beyond Kaiser’s employees to the general public.
So it was, in July 1945, that they announced that the “first large extension of the family health plan” beyond Kaiser workers would be in Vallejo, California, about 30 miles northeast of San Francisco.
The idea of going to Vallejo with a Kaiser Foundation Health Plan and Hospital resulted from a grassroots invitation from citizens there—a sort of populist request for prepaid medical care. That should come as no surprise. The new medical care program—nicknamed “a Mayo Clinic for the common man” by one writer of the era—had been a hit with workers in the wartime Kaiser Shipyards in nearby Richmond and was getting nationwide media notice.
“I don’t see why this can’t be done everywhere, for everyone,” said one shipyard worker. “This should be for everybody,” added another. “We must organize and demand this not only for us workers but for all their families. It should be for everybody in America.”
Against that backdrop, Kaiser Permanente was invited to town by a tenants’ council of the Vallejo Housing Authority to provide care for residents of eight large wartime public housing dormitories. A doctor was assigned to each dormitory and a clinic was set up within an existing public health service infirmary.
Meanwhile, with the cooperation of local physicians, a citizen’s committee had unraveled wartime bureaucracies to get the government-sponsored Vallejo Community Hospital opened in 1944. It was needed because the Mare Island Naval Shipyard at Vallejo and the nearby Benicia Arsenal ordnance facility had drawn thousands of wartime civilian workers. The city’s few doctors had been swamped by a flood of new patients.
However, with the war ending, the government was no longer willing to support a community hospital. The military-style facility—long, low buildings spread over 30 acres—closed after the war ended in August, leaving thousands of civilian families without medical care.
Before long, the not-for-profit Kaiser Foundation Health Plan needed a full service hospital in Vallejo. So, on April 1, 1947, Kaiser Permanente re-opened the 250-bed Vallejo Community Hospital as its own, having first leased it as surplus property from the Federal Works Agency. Later, it bought the hospital at the site where Kaiser Permanente’s Vallejo Medical Center remains to this day.
“This…marks the beginning of efforts now underway by the Kaiser organization to offer Permanente Foundation facilities to all groups interested in complete prepaid medicine,” the July 1945 announcement read. The existing facilities were those on the Home Front of World War II serving Henry Kaiser’s shipyards and steel mill. They were in Richmond, Oakland, and Fontana in California and in Vancouver in Washington state.
A few days later, Clyde F. Diddle, administrator of the Oakland Medical Center, told the San Francisco Chronicle that the Oakland hospital was being opened to the public under four principles: prepayment, group medical practice, adequate facilities, and “a new medical economy.”
“This ‘new economy,’ strongly opposed in part by some factions favoring the traditional family physician-patient relationship, follows the old Chinese practice of paying the physician while you are well,” the Chronicle said.
Added Diddle, “We offer medical service from nasal spray to surgery—and all under one roof. The important thing is that there are no barriers to early treatment. …Patients are encouraged to come in early…”
The Chronicle article also reported that Henry Kaiser was preparing a proposal for Congress to establish a nationwide system of voluntary prepaid medical care. This would be the first of many continuing efforts to support Sidney Garfield’s dream of health care for all Americans that have continued to the present day.
These historic events are honored today by the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, which includes historic sites of the wartime medical care program. Notes National Park Service interpretative materials: “Today, prepaid medical care is central to American culture—it is a legacy of the WWII Home Front.”
Forecasts in 1945 projected eventually serving about 25,000 people in Vallejo. Today, the Vallejo Medical Centers serves about 10 times that number in California’s Napa and Solano counties alone. The entire Kaiser Permanente multi-state program serves 8.6 million members.
The “official” date for Kaiser Permanente’s opening to the public became Oct. 1, 1945, but the work got under way in earnest starting in July.
Launch of the S.S. Multnomah Tanker, One of Kaiser’s Last Ships, Was 65 Years Ago This 4th of July Weekendposted on July 2, 2010
By Tom Debley
Director of Heritage Resources
Henry J. Kaiser, who had witnessed his boyhood hero Teddy Roosevelt as the trust-busting President fighting monopolistic business practices, had lived through the Great Depression and he had a vision of a better post-war America.
“If we re-build a world of monopoly and special privilege, we will taste a defeat as bitter as a victory for the Axis powers,” he once said during World War II. “Our task and our hope is to release our energies for creative effort. …It is now our portion to be better-fed, better-housed, better-clothed, better-skilled in all the arts of production than at any time in the history of mankind. It is now our lot to enjoy better health…”
It was for visions like this that Kaiser, whose desire for better health for all Americans became Kaiser Permanente, led a heroic civilian production army of Kaiser employees who set records in shipbuilding never matched before or since.
So we thought it would be a good Fourth of July moment to let you relive those times by bringing you, from our Heritage Archive, a recording of the launch of the SS Multnomah, a tanker named for the county where the main city is Portland, on July 3, 1945 – 65 years ago Saturday.
The Multnomah was among the last of the Kaiser ships launched from his Oregon shipyards.
Launch of the SS Multnomah
Click here to listen.
Listen to the launch of the SS Multnomah from the Swan Island Shipyard by Mrs. Martin Pratt, who was the wife of the Multnomah County sheriff. You will hear the crack of the champagne bottle and a shipyard workers quartet, the Singing Sentinels, singing Anchor’s Away as the Multnomah slides into the Willamette River.
The SS Multnomah went into private shipping after the war as an oil tanker. It was renamed the Esso Worcester in 1947, the Hess Refiner in 1961 and the Pieces in 1976. The ship was scrapped in Taiwan in 1984 after 39 years service.
[Revised 1/15/2016, audio link updated]