Archive for December, 2017

Happy New Year – 1942!

posted on December 28, 2017

Lincoln Cushing, Heritage writer

Fore ‘n’ Aft, January 1, 1942

New years are a time of reflection and hope – of birth, death, and hopefully a healthy life in between.

The caption for this cover of the Kaiser Richmond shipyard weekly magazine Fore ‘n’ Aft was: “Happy New Year goes double. Left is Jo-Anne and her twin brother, George Thomas, three-months-old children of George W. Peterson, purchasing agent at the Todd-California shipyard.”

Note that this issue came out the month after Pearl Harbor was attacked, and the Kaiser yards had already built five cargo ships for the British government. With the United States now involved in the war, the F&A editorial soberly pointed out the new reality:

The New Year will be a Defense Year. It will be a year in which we must all do our utmost to defend our country – our freedom, our rights- all that we live for. Our young men are giving their lives, or, at least, important years of their lives, to the Army, the Navy and the Marines. They are fighting on land, sea, and in the air to defend our coasts and outposts.

This 2018, we wish the best for all the Jo-Annes, and Georges, and children of the world.


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From Boats to Books: A Short History of Kaiser Permanente’s Medical Libraries

posted on December 19, 2017

Lincoln Cushing, Heritage writer

Kaiser Permanente Oakland librarians Alice Katzung and Irma Hickman, 1959

Librarians use the expression “marking and parking” to describe the essence of their craft: tagging content and storing it for future access. It sounds simple, but the devil’s in the details. There are an enormous number of steps – including accession, organization, and cataloging –  that happen behind the scenes to make for a smooth and user-friendly library experience. It’s called “library science” for a reason.

During World War II, Avram Yedidia was hired at the Kaiser Richmond shipyards to manage the enormous volume of material required to build these vessels. Having earlier processed collections at San Francisco’s Sutro Library, he realized that he could apply those same methods of marking and parking to tracking railroad cars and storing steel.

Librarian Mrs. Hickman with physicians in Kaiser Permanente Oakland Medical Center library, circa 1970

Yedidia’s tools for managing that industrial workflow served after the war when he become the economist for the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, which had accumulated an enormous volume of research while providing affordable, high-quality care to the public. Just as Yedidia’s system kept track of shipbuilding materials and got them to the right location, librarians took charge of organizing medical books and journals and getting research results into the hands of physicians and nurses.

Now celebrating a 70-year anniversary, Kaiser Permanente librarians continue to help clinicians and administrators find the information they need to provide great care.

Kaiser Foundation School of Nursing library, 1963

Like many things, it started small. When the first Permanente Foundation hospital in Oakland opened in 1942 to provide medical care for the Kaiser Richmond shipyard workers, the medical library collection was a single shelf of books in the office of founding physician Dr. Sidney R. Garfield. The first librarian at Oakland was hired May 1947 to assist and support libraries at the expansion facilities.

Libraries are much more than just books, though. In 1969, the pioneering Health Education Research Center opened next to the Oakland hospital, featuring a health library equipped with 24 individual projection booths for viewing films, slide-sound programs, and videotaped TV programs.

Kaiser Permanente library systems began to be linked by computer networks in the mid-1980s, and in the mid-1990s began conversion of manual card catalogs to digital records. Today, electronic resources are essential; the joint catalog includes more than 1,700 eBooks and 8,500 eJournals. The “kpLibraries systemwide online access catalog was launched in 2005.

Physicians are still the heaviest users of library resources and services; last year, librarians handled more than 8,000 requests for articles and literature searches from physicians nationwide. Nurses comprise the second largest group of library users, making more than 2,000 informational requests.

Carolyn Fishel and Walnut Creek Physician collaborating on a literature search, 2014 (photo courtesy Eve Melton)

But it takes librarians to make a library work. As Baldwin Park Medical Center Library Services Manager Kristyn Gonnerman recently described it,

The value we provide lies partly in just being there to work alongside our clinicians and employees and providing answers and support to them as they work on day-to-day clinical questions… the relationships we build with them over the years [means] they know they can come to us with their questions and get answers.

Avram Yedidia would have been proud.


The author has a Masters of Information Management from U.C. Berkeley

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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 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. 


More on the Henry J! Also see “Classic Cars: The Mustang that got away”

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