Kaiser Permanente’s Historical Role in Rehabilitation Medicine

posted on January 23, 2010

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.)

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10 Responses to “Kaiser Permanente’s Historical Role in Rehabilitation Medicine”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Kaiser Permanente and KP HeritageResources, Thrive with KP. Thrive with KP said: RT @kphistory: New blog post: Kaiser Permanente's Historical Role in Rehabilitation Medicine: http://bit.ly/8dPdWG […]

  2. Judy Weston says:

    Does anyone have any personal information on the Kabat-Kaiser Institute in Santa Monica? I would be very interested in any info., pictures or remembrances anyone may have of the place from the early to middle fifties.

  3. Bert Rush says:

    Reply to Judy Weston: I was in rehab there in 1952, when I was five. I remember the hot baths and being wrapped in itchy woolen towels. Have since learned the building was known as the Edgewater Beach Hotel (or Club), before being acquired by Kaiser. I found images of it on the internet, and a postcard view on eBay. There was a movie filmed there in 1949 that shows quite a bit of the interior and exterior. It was Ida Lupino’s first as a director, called “Never Fear.” I bought it in DVD format a few years ago. Seeing the movie brought back memories.

  4. Joyce Dannemiller says:

    I am looking for information about Kabat Kaiser Institute in 16th Street in Washingtion, D. C. I was a patient there for 6 months in 1951 1952.

  5. AJ Laverty says:

    Reply to Judy Weston; I was in Kabat Kaiser Institute, Santa Monica, CA from August 1950 to just before Christmas the same year. At 10, I was transferred by ambulance from LA County Hospital where I had been in isolation for 2 weeks. Except for the upstairs wards, the lobby was quite lush to my eyes. Velvet drapes, thick carpeting, a baby grand piano, overstuffed furniture, and an enclosed swimming pool were on the ground level. It was close enough to the beach and a group of us were walked (or wheeled) there once.
    I was put in the girl’s ward which was open on one side and don’t remember how many beds there were, but there were several of us and I think I was one of the oldest. The boy’s ward was across from us, semi separated by large columns. I remember most of the treatments; hot wool cloths, physical therapy, gym, hot tanks, wet stretch, dry stretch, water therapy in the pool, etc.
    There was an auditorium where one class school for all ages, crafts, holiday parties were held. Hollywood stars occasionally visited.

  6. John Counter says:

    Hi Judy, my name is John Counter. I contacted polio in 1951 and was transferred from UC Medical Center in early November to the Kabat-Kaiser Institute in Santa Monica. I stayed there thru the new year and was released as an out patient in March I believe, 1952. I have no photographs of the hospital, but do have memoirs. If you respond to this email I will provide more information. Did you know that there was a radio station broadcasting from the hospital. I met an African-American DJ who befriended me, I got to listen in while he did his job.

  7. Laurel Pollard says:

    I was a patient at Kabat Kaiser 1951/52 with Balbar Polio. Paralysis. Transferred to Kaba Kaiser after a year in Gen. hospital.
    Does anyone know the location of Kabat Kaiser or have pictures etc? Thank you.

  8. LCushing says:

    There were two Kabat Kaiser facilities in California, one in Vallejo and one in Santa Monica, right on the beach. We did a Heritage blog post on a book published about some of this, and a brief profile on one of the innovative physical therapists, but this is an incentive to write up more. Keep an eye out on this channel.

  9. Joan Frantz Vesper says:

    I worked as a waitress in the cafeteria at Kabat-Kaiser Polio Rehabilitation Institute in Santa Monica for eight months after graduating from Santa Monica High School in February 1952. The staff and the clients of all ages ate meals there. It was a wonderful first full time job in an atmosphere that conveyed helpfulness and optimism. I remember all the people with affection. When I left to attend college, the staff and clients joined in a good-bye party—gifts, guests, and good wishes. Overwhelming, for a 17-year-old.

  10. Robert Feigel says:

    Hi – My mother (Martha Jane Roberts) was the head of medical social work and public relations for Kabat-Kaiser in Santa Monica in the late-40s to early-50s. One of her tasks was talking my step-dad to use his show biz (aka The Business) into performing or visiting the hospital for free. My middle sister and I spent many hours at the hospital and got to meet some of the celebrities in her office. Names that come to mind are Spade Cooley, Liberace, Karla Pandit, “Lord” James Blears (the wrestler), Jimmy Lennon (wrestling and boxing announcer and uncle of the Lennon Sisters) and so on. We got in trouble once when we took part in a wheel chair race down the corridors.

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