Archive for May, 2017

Reaching for the Sky: How Kaiser Steel Helped Reshape San Francisco

posted on May 31, 2017

Topping out of Transamerica Pyramid, featuring Kaiser Steel, 3/28/1972.

Lincoln Cushing, Heritage writer


Forty five years after the Transamerica Pyramid redefined the San Francisco skyline, the city is witnessing a new exclamation mark – the Salesforce Tower. The upstart’s roof is 970 feet above the ground, and a top spike sprouts another 100 feet. It’s easily the tallest building in San Francisco and the second-tallest building west of the Mississippi River.

Until now, the Transamerica Pyramid was San Francisco’s distinctive giant. And it was built with Kaiser Steel.

News accounts featured the Pyramid’s “topping out” (or “topping off”) on March 28, 1972. It was 863 feet tall, and would have been taller at an even 1,000 feet but for a taxpayer’s lawsuit and other community opposition. And its unusual shape, intended to reduce its upper mass and improve views, was denounced by S.F. Chronicle architecture critic Alan Temko, who sniffed it “…would be out of place, even in Los Angeles, or in Las Vegas, where it belongs. It certainly doesn’t belong in San Francisco.”


Last year the S.F. Chronicle’s architecture and urban design critic John King praised its glories – “… an unforgettable . . . high-rise in an unforgettable setting… [which] stands serenely above the clutter of overhead wires and sidewalk fuss.”

The accompanying AP wirephoto of the “topping out” ceremony clearly shows the final steel beam being hoisted by crane – both emblazoned with KAISER STEEL.

Transamerica Pyramid construction, 5/3/1971.

Of all the businesses built by Henry J. Kaiser, historian Mark S. Foster called Kaiser Steel the “linchpin” of the powerful Kaiser industrial empire. That global reach used to include aluminum, cement, electronics, and automobile manufacturing, but all that’s left now is the Kaiser Permanente health care program. The 1980s were not kind to the American steel industry. Kaiser’s massive Fontana steel mill, built to make plate steel for cargo ships during World War II, was shut down in 1983 and sold off in 1984. Within a few years the company was all but gone.

Jesse Lee Beeson, Sr., who passed away this year, was the longtime foreman of Kaiser Steel’s “raising gang.” That team worked on giant construction projects all over the world, and placed the steel and assembled the precast concrete outer surface on the Pyramid. Mr. Beeson always considered this to be his greatest accomplishment.

Another detail in the news story was mention that the last beam sprouted “… a 4-foot redwood sapling.” It’s barely visible in the photo, but “… according to local [ironworker] custom, [a sapling] must accompany the last unit of a skyscraper’s skeleton. The sapling will be taken down and later planted in a half-acre plaza at the foot of the building.” That redwood joined 79 other siblings brought from a tree farm in the nearby Santa Cruz mountains. The Cultural Landscape Foundation praises this urban oasis.

Rather than a “curious local custom,” topping out is a widespread early Scandinavian construction practice, and was also followed in a recent Salesforce Tower event, hosted by Salesforce CEO (and health care philanthropist) Marc Benioff.

Reaching for the sky, the Henry J. Kaiser way. Welcome to San Francisco, Mr. Benioff.


Did you know that Kaiser Steel built the transbay tubes for Bay Area Rapid Transit in the late 1960s?
More Kaiser Steel stories to come.


Short link to this article:

Tags: , ,

Hot Off the Presses! Kaiser to Build Helicopters to Combat Submarine Menace

posted on May 17, 2017

Lincoln Cushing, Heritage writer

U.S. cargo routes, World War II; from Fore ‘n’ Aft, 5/26/1944.

Headline, April 30, 1943: “Kaiser to build helicopters to combat submarine menace.” By the mid-1940s, it seemed like there was almost no project that Henry J. Kaiser wasn’t trying to improve. Kaiser’s innovation wasn’t inventing things, it was looking at an existing problem and unleashing massive human talent to solve it. That worked for dams, that worked for ships, and that worked for health care.

Reporter Blair Moody of the North American Newspaper Alliance wrote about the U.S. Navy’s interest in using ship-based aircraft or helicopters to defend convoys against their number one threat: Hitler’s  U-boats. Moody offered some of the deal details:

While the Army termed the craft “still experimental” and the Navy’s position remained confusing, Kaiser walked off with a contract to develop and build them for the lend-lease administration in response to British demand. The contract was announced by R.W. Seabury, president of Cargoes, Inc., a government corporation subsidiary to [Under Secretary of State] Edward R. Stettinius Jr.’s lend-lease administration.

The Bristol Courier in Pennsylvania blared this headline the next day: “Kaiser May Build Helicopters Here” at Bristol’s Fleetwings aircraft plant.

Yet despite the best of intentions and the enormous efforts by many parties, helicopter technology was just taking off in World War II and didn’t get used to the extent envisioned.  The Igor I. Sikorsky Historical Archives, representing the preeminent U.S. helicopter developer, concedes “…helicopters remained largely untested and undeveloped and thus never played the role that many envisioned for them during the war. Given the declining submarine threat, those that wanted to develop the helicopter found it difficult to shift national policy.”

Vought-Sikorsky VS-300, 1941. When mounted with floats it was the first practical amphibious helicopter.

“Experimental” is the operative phrase here. These aircraft were still in their earliest stages, and the demands of combat flying – especially at sea – were daunting. What’s more, the expedited development of war technology caused friction between the Navy and the Army, and there were accusations that Kaiser’s efforts to take on the Navy helicopter contract would “interfere with the Army’s procurement program.” The Army had contracted with the Vought-Sikorsky Aircraft Company, a subsidiary of the powerful United Aircraft Corporation, to develop their helicopter.

Henry J. Kaiser confirmed that his contract would not in any way subvert United Aircraft’s work, and declared:

In line with my usual procedure, whenever I am requested by any department of the government to perform any specific task for the war effort. I gladly respond, especially when I am convinced personally that the work will contribute to victory. I have agreed with Mr. Seabury to build helicopters for him and the engineering is already under way.

And it was.

Henry J. Kaiser had just purchased a controlling interest in the aircraft manufacturer Fleetwings of Bristol, Penn., a month before to become a division of Kaiser Cargo, Inc. Fleetwings had a long and proud aviation history, which included the limited edition XBTK-1 torpedo bomber as a technical response to the need for smaller aircraft that could work well on compact aircraft carriers such as Kaiser’s CVE escort carriers.

But as we know, helicopters were in their infancy and . . . experimental. Sikorsky built the first production helicopter in the world; the military prototype was the XR4, and its first ferry flight was January 14, 1942.

Fleetwings plant, Bristol, Penn., November 1944

Before Kaiser’s acquisition of Fleetwings had gone through, he’d already been working on the helicopter project. A confidential memo dated March 26, 1943, from Frank de Ganahl [vice president and general manager of Fleetwings] reveals that Kaiser was pursuing two development tracks. One was called the “Sikorsky-type” helicopter, to be headed up and engineered by Ralph McClarren, Secretary of the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, to design a two passenger, 2850-pound helicopter.  By late May, they had transferred all of that work to Fleetwings, whose primary role was to supply 25 percent of the floor space in the hangar so that McClarren and his crew could work.

Another highly confidential helicopter project would be headed up by Frank’s brother, Carl de Ganahl [President of Fleetwings], and would consist primarily of engineering studies with minor experimental shop projects.

A memo from Carl to Frank on March 29, 1943, described a meeting Carl had with Lieutenant Colonel H. F. Gregory at Wright Field. Henry J Kaiser had asked Carl to explore obtaining a production order for helicopters. Despite his reservations that the Sikorsky XR4 [later the CR4 or R4 model] might not really be ready for production, Col. Gregory had placed an order due to the urgency of the submarine menace and sought to determine which changes would be required to make shipboard operation practical in collaboration with the British Navy. Carl wrote of the efforts to attract working prototypes beyond the Sikorsky model:

I understood from Gregory that all rotary wing aircraft made to date in the size category approaching the size of the experimental order now with Sikorsky have not been successful. Just why, nobody seems to know. Gregory does not know if there is some fundamental aerodynamic problem inherent with the size of the machine, or just what it is.

Sikorsky R4 in use during World War II

History proved Col. Gregory’s concerns to be unwarranted; the R4 served as the most successful helicopter of the war. Production started in the first quarter of 1943 and by the end of the war close to 130 R4s were produced and used in the Pacific theater in a variety of roles.

When Carl informed Mr. Kaiser of his meeting, Kaiser suggested that Carl go back to Col. Gregory to get an experimental order for one large Sikorsky machine and a smaller one.

“This, Col. Gregory flatly refused to consider. He said that if we wish to come to him with a proposal on a helicopter with adequate design figures and drawings that they would be very glad to consider same; and on its merits would or would not give us a contract.”

Among other reasons, Col. Gregory was concerned that it would take Sikorsky valuable time to educate the Kaiser team rather than applying Sikorsky’s efforts to the development of its own machines.

On June 1943, Admiral Vickery (Vice-Chairman of the U.S, Maritime Commission) announced that experiments were being made to add a helicopter flight deck to a Liberty ship being built in Baltimore, the first time that a cargo vessel would be equipped with “aerial auxiliaries.” Vickery claimed that helicopters had been successfully flown off of tankers, but the effort was never completed.

Kaiser Fleetwings XH-10 helicopter, 1945

By May 1944, the Kaiser team had designed and flown one of their prototypes successfully. It was called the XH-10 “Twirleybird” two-seater, with a standard configuration of three main blades and a tail rotor, and was very similar to Sikorsky’s R4. But the XH-10 was never evaluated by the Army Air Force, and by then the war was winding down. Unlike his ships and planes, Henry J. Kaiser’s helicopters would not be part of the victory, and he moved on to other projects.

In the late 1950s Fleetwings had one more shot to produce a military turbine-powered observation helicopter, but the project stumbled and the company closed aircraft operations in 1962.


Short link to this article:

Tags: , ,

Mother of Invention: Henry J. Kaiser’s Inspiration for Building a Health Plan

posted on May 11, 2017

Lincoln Cushing, Heritage writer


Mary Kaiser in wedding dress, 1873; photo from Henry J. Kaiser: Western Colossus, by Albert Heiner.

Every institution has a story about how it started. For the health care plan now known as Kaiser Permanente, it began with Henry J. Kaiser’s mother.

In his last published interview, three and a half months before he passed away on August 14, 1967, Henry J. Kaiser stated “I see the day when no one need die for lack of medical care, as my own mother died in my arms when I was 16 years old.”

Mary Kaiser, a practical nurse, was only 52 years old when she died on December 1, 1899.

It was a story told and retold. During World War II medical author Paul de Kruif helped bring Kaiser’s novel health plan to national attention in Kaiser Wakes the Doctors. De Kruif described Kaiser’s motivation:

It was the lack of a doctor – who might have saved her life – that had killed Kaiser’s own mother at the age of 49… He was raw about this medical injustice. [Later in life] it offended him that he and his family could command the best medical advice, while millions of human beings were medically kicked around.

Henry Kaiser himself was vocal about his motivation. At a speech he made before a doctor’s group at San Francisco’s St. Francis Hotel June 9, 1948, he said:

Mother would not go to a hospital as a charity patient because she believed in giving, not taking, charity. … I propose to earn millions of dollars and put millions into hospitals and to devote my life toward helping my fellow citizens who, as my own Mother and Father did, suffer because they cannot pay for the full services they require.

Henry J. Kaiser speaking at dedication of Permanente Foundation Hospital, Oakland, August 21, 1942.

More details emerged over time. He later said that Mary’s specific condition was Bright’s Disease, a constellation of kidney diseases now known as chronic nephritis. In addition to relative poverty (Henry’s father also had health problems and was going blind), another complication for her care was that the family lived in small town in rural New York.

Historian Mark. S. Foster’s biography of Henry J. Kaiser points out some inconsistencies in Henry’s story. For one thing, Henry was actually 17 years old when his mother passed. And there’s no corroborating evidence that Henry was present at her death.

But all origin stories value mission over details, and this one is no different.

According to one of Kaiser Permanente’s founding physicians, Morris Collen, MD, Henry Kaiser told the audience at the dedication of the Oakland Hospital in 1942 “My mother died in my arms because she didn’t receive adequate medical care, and I vowed that I would do whatever I could so this wouldn’t happen to anybody else.”

The health plan that Henry Kaiser built has certainly been proof of a son’s love for his mother.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mary.


Short link to this article:

Tags: ,

Looking Through You: How a Kaiser Permanente Nurse Transformed Health Education

posted on May 4, 2017

Transparent woman on cover of 1967 Kaiser Foundation Medical Care Program report.

Lincoln Cushing, Heritage writer


In 1967, wife and husband Bobbie and Morrie Collen toured Montreal’s Expo 67 and were transfixed by a pair of transparent mannequins that rotated and lit up to reveal organs and display physiology. They later purchased the figures and shipped them back to Oakland to become the centerpiece of a major Kaiser Permanente health education program led by Bobbie.

Frances Bobbie Collen (née Diner, 1914-1996; always called Bobbie, never Frances) was an accomplished professional as well as being the wife of Morris “Morrie” Collen, MD. She was a nurse with a master’s degree in health education, and was the force behind the groundbreaking Health Education Research Center at the Kaiser Permanente Oakland hospital.

Bobbie graduated from Winnipeg (Canada) General Hospital as a Registered Nurse in 1937 and worked at the University of Minnesota Hospital where she met her future husband, Morrie. They wed secretly when he was a medical student because the university hospital would not hire married nurses. Later they moved to Chicago where he interned at Michael Reese Hospital and she was the evening supervisor at the Meyer House patient wing. While there she also a graduate student at the University of Chicago in Nursing Education.

Bobbie Collen, RN, circa 1980.

In 1939 the Collens moved to California where Dr. Collen began his residency at Los Angeles County Hospital. When World War II began, Dr. Collen’s 4-F status due to asthma kept him from serving in the military, but the Permanente health plan was ramping up to care for defense industry workers. Dr. Collen was one of the first ten physicians hired by Kaiser Permanente’s founding physician, Sidney Garfield, MD.

Bobbie was a founding member of the Permanente Medical Wives in Oakland, an important support group during the challenging postwar years. Dr. Collen’s oral history credits the group as a key factor in the success of Permanente medicine.

But it was Bobbie’s role in patient education that would be her lasting legacy in the advancement of health care. Dr. Garfield asked her to be the Director of the Educational Research Center in the spring of 1967: “Start with the development of a Health Exhibits Theater as an adjunct to our planned health care program for the healthy in our Health Plan membership, because this first step will be the easiest.”

Dr. Garfield with transparent man in Health Education Center

In May 1967 Bobbie submitted her thesis “Factors Associated with Continuing Education of Adult Women” for a Master of Arts in Education at U.C. Berkeley. Then the Collens toured a dozen facilities on the East Coast, including the Cleveland Health Museum and the Lankenau Hospital Education Center in Philadelphia.

Her field work in reviewing health education displays led her to this conclusion:

In my opinion, they have all missed one important feature which is a further step forward in preventive medicine, and that is, to demonstrate not only what the body looks like on the inside, and how it functions, but also how to care for it to keep it healthy. Here I think exists the potential which, when materialized in the shape of a Health Exhibits Theater, will provide a service to our membership that is unique in the country.

The Health Education Research Center at 3779 Piedmont Avenue in Oakland (next to the Kaiser Permanente Oakland hospital) opened its doors in January 1969 as a supporting function for Dr. Collen’s Multiphasic Health Testing Services.

The Principal Investigator for the demonstration research project was Krikor Soghikian, MD, and Bobbie Collen was the Education Director. The U.S. Public Health Service partially supported the Center through the Kaiser Foundation Research Institute because of the research component and its potential application elsewhere in the nation.

One key feature of the Center was the Health Education Library which opened July 1969, equipped with 24 individual projection booths for viewing films, slide-sound programs, and videotaped TV programs.  A patient would visit the library with a physician’s “prescription” to see a specific program.  Adjacent to the Library was an exhibit area that featured the transparent man and woman, a variety of health exhibits, and a children’s area with educational games, toys, and play figures. Later, when the Center was relocated, the children’s section included a doll with leg braces, a stuffed elephant with a hearing aid, and a monkey in a wheelchair.

Caren Quay, MLS, started as the Center’s first librarian in 1970. She recalled that from the beginning visitors requested more information, so she began to build an extensive collection of books and audiovisual materials, with every title reviewed by Permanente Medical Group physicians.

The health librarian would retrieve the prescribed audio-visual program from the files and play it on the projector in the individual’s booth. The list of educational videos grew to over 250 titles; a notation on one of the librarian’s catalogs records that the most popular subjects were stress, nutrition, birth control, breast self-examination, headaches, lifestyles, and high blood pressure.

Health Education Library for Patients, librarian Caren Quay at desk, circa 1974.

The program was quite successful. Audio-visual requests grew from 98 in 1969 to almost 8,000 by mid-1973. Attendance for women was triple that of men. Dr. Collen reflected on how well it reached members of the community:

They would bring in schoolchildren from all over Oakland, who would come in and go through this health education center. They would look at the exhibits—there was a normal lung and a smoker, smoker’s black lung, and I think that helped a lot of kids realize what smoking can do.

After Dr. Garfield and Mrs. Collen passed away (1984 and 1996, respectively) the education display lost its primary advocates. The grant money ran out and the Oakland hospital needed the space. The transparent man and woman went to U.C. Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science. But what continued was an expanding role for health educators and the growth of health education centers at the Kaiser Permanente medical centers for patients and members of the community.

Health Education Library, 1978.

Ms. Quay later became the health information specialist in Northern California’s department of Patient Education and Health Promotion, and recently reflected on the legacy of the program:

The Health Library broke ground as the first library I know of in the U.S. to provide health and medical information to the lay person. It was the model and inspiration (and then flagship, resource, and consulting lead) for health education centers that provided health information (and more) for the Kaiser Permanente Medical Centers throughout Northern California and, eventually, for the other regions of the Medical Care Program. The library served as a model for Planetree in San Francisco and for others throughout the country.

Dr. Collen lamented in his oral history that “[Bobbie] doesn’t get enough credit . . . for all the things she contributed.”

On this Nurses Week we thank Bobbie Collen, RN, for improving public health through education.


Short link to this article:


Tags: , , , , , ,