By Tom Debley
Director, Heritage Resources, Kaiser Permanente
Since the late 1940s, the Kaiser Foundation Rehabilitation Center (KFRC) in Vallejo, California has treated thousands of patients with acquired neurological disorders, trauma, and neuromuscular and orthopedic conditions. This inpatient rehabilitation hospital and outpatient center also is Kaiser Permanente’s Center of Excellence for people with disabilities.
Less known is the role industrialist Henry J. Kaiser played in its inception, thereby establishing himself as a national philanthropic leader in helping establish the field of rehabilitation medicine. Recognition for that historic accomplishment is remedied in a new book by Richard Verville titled “War, Politics, and Philanthropy: The History of Rehabilitation Medicine” (University Press of America, 2009).
Verville describes the birth of this field in part out of the need to treat soldiers who suffered combat injuries in World Wars I and II. He traces its evolution to the present. In his chapter “The Immediate Postwar Years,” he covers Henry Kaiser, Dr. Sidney R. Garfield and Dr. Herman Kabat in the formation of the Kabat-Kaiser Institute in 1946 – today’s KFRC. Anyone interested can view our 11-minute video The Power of Science and the Human Spirit about the history of KFRC and get the full story in the context of American medical history in Verville’s book.
To sum up the historic role of Henry J. Kaiser, Verville places him in a pantheon of important leaders that includes President Franklin D. Roosevelt in setting the stage for the growth of rehabilitation medicine after World War II: “Kaiser thus took his place along with Bernard Baruch, Jeremiah and Samuel Milbank, and FDR as philanthropists who assisted in the early development of the medical rehabilitation facility movement in the private sector. Without their initiative and willingness to back new methods in health care, the eventual growth of rehabilitation medicine might never have occurred.” (Emphasis added.)
To be sure, as Verville points out, the trigger for Henry Kaiser’s actions was news in 1945 that his son, Henry J. Kaiser Jr., had multiple sclerosis. When the elder Kaiser learned that Kabat, a neurophysiologist and clinical neurologist, was achieving success in treating multiple sclerosis and paralytic poliomyelitis, he asked Kaiser Permanente founding physician Sidney R. Garfield to meet with Dr. Kabat. “He had people walking who hadn’t walked for years,” Garfield recalled. The Kabat-Kaiser Institute was born.
Not covered in this book is the fact that Kaiser already had experience with addressing the needs of people with disabilities on the Home Front of World War II.
An early Permanente physician, Clifford Kuh, a specialist in industrial medicine, did research in the Kaiser Shipyards in Richmond, Calif., looking at workers for their capabilities despite their physical disabilities rather than viewing them as “handicapped” and incapable. It was a visionary’s viewpoint that did not become prevalent for another 30 years with the rise of the Disability Rights Movement of the 1970s and subsequent Independent Living Movement.
The importance of Dr. Kuh’s work was recognized immediately, however. In reporting on it, the New York Times (May 21, 1944) quoted William K. Hopkins, regional director the War Manpower Commission, which collaborated on the study. Hopkins called it “pioneering” work that would prove “invaluable in the post-war period” with service men and women who would return to the civilian workforce with disabling injuries.
As a charitable trust, Kaiser Foundation Health Plan (then “Permanente Foundation”) provided funds in 1944 to distribute the research results nationwide as a public service so that communities across the country could use it help assimilate disabled veterans into the postwar workforce.
(The Kaiser Permanente Heritage Resources program offers special thanks to its history colleague Dr. Elizabeth Sandel, chief of physical medicine and rehabilitation at KFRC today who Verville notes reviewed an early draft of his book and provided him with historical material on the history of The Permanente Medical Group and Henry J. Kaiser.)