Posts Tagged ‘Vanport’

Looking Back: Laura Robertson, 97, Recalls Roots in Kaiser Shipyards

posted on January 18, 2017

Lincoln Cushing
Heritage writer


"Rube" (Ruby) Bingham, worker at NW Kaiser shipyard, Portland, 1943-Fall (photo courtesy daughter Laura Robertson)

“Rube” (Ruby) Bingham, worker at Kaiser shipyard, Portland; Fall, 1943. (photo gift of daughter Laura Robertson)

Laura Robertson, 97, chuckles when her doctor in Kaiser Permanente’s Colorado Region stumbles on the tiny size of her pharmacy order. She takes so few medications that the doctor assumes something’s off – but Laura assures her she’s just in very good health.

Laura’s not just healthy, she’s been connected to the big Kaiser picture almost all her life. I had the chance to sit down with her last October, and she’s got quite a story to tell about roots in the Kaiser shipyards and experiences as Kaiser Permanente member.


Early Years: Portland before the War

I am the oldest survivor of my family. I have outlived all my original friends, including people I’ve worked with. There are too many people that live in the past, and I have no desire to do that. Day-to-day is much more interesting.

These younger people think you’re lying, that you’ve got a great imagination.

Map of three NW Kaiser shipyards, 1943; by Marguerite Gillespie, from Record Breakers publication, Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation

Map of Portland-area Kaiser shipyards and Northern Permanente Hospital, 1943; by Marguerite Gillespie, from Record Breakers, Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation.

I had to dig pretty deep for some of this stuff.

Portland. I went there with my mother, Rube (pronounced “Ruby”) Bingham, in 1938. I worked in a restaurant, and was a member of the Cooks and Bartenders Union. I made $20 a week.

I then left the restaurant business and went to a business school a half day and worked for the school a half day to pay for tuition. I worked nights and weekends in a restaurant. During the war years I worked for Industrial Claims, an insurance company that handled insurance for “high risk” industries.

I worked on the 13th floor of what I think was the Board of Trades building, right down on the waterfront.  You know the river splits the town in two – I lived on the West side, close enough that I could walk to work, or I could walk down to the corner and take the streetcar. When I got to work and took the elevator I could look down onto the decks of the foreign ships that were coming in and loading and unloading. And, of course, it took me a while to understand that they came in on the tides, and had to wait to go out on the tides. And when they went out, it was fresh water, and the decks were practically at the water level. But once they passed the bar, the sea water was more buoyant. There were all sorts of countries coming and going – German, Russian, Scandinavian.

I was married in 1941. My wedding ring was from a jewelry store in Portland. It cost $30, and we bought it on an installment plan of $5 a week. The girls in my office were envious because I actually had a diamond. It was just a chip!


Working in the Shipyards

My mother worked in the Kaiser shipyards. Here’s a photo of her in 1943, in her work clothes. She installed sheet metal ducting after it was insulated.

Migration chart map, Fortune magazine 1945-02. Infographics

Migration chart map, Fortune magazine, February, 1945. Design by Walt Disney studios.

I remember the change in Portland during the war years. Kaiser was advertising for help all over, and they were coming in from all areas. Before the war, Portland was a pretty typical city. The Chinese worked in restaurants and laundries, the Filipinos were in the food industry, the Japanese were vegetable farmers. I had never heard a foreign language until I went to Portland.

[Editor’s note: wartime workforce labor migration dramatically affected many West coast cities, including Portland. The largely white, urban, population experienced struggles with an influx of mostly poor rural people and immigrants of color. Before World War II, Black Americans made up only 1 percent of Oregon’s population; most of them lived in Portland. By war’s end, the black population had grown from 2,000 to 20,000. In a 1974 interview, Kaiser Permanente founding physician Dr. Sidney Garfield remarked on the impact of this wartime immigration: “Portland people were rather unhappy with the influx of workmen into their area because Portland was sort of a staid, stuffy community…”]

I grew up in a town of 300 in Iowa, right next to Missouri, and I finished high school in 1936. We were very close to the Mason-Dixon Line. Just 25 or 30 miles south of us the schools were segregated; where we were, what few blacks were there went to school with the whites. We didn’t experience some of the extremes that people did in the south.

But in wartime Portland, if they weren’t speaking a foreign language they might have well have, if you were trying to understand what they were trying to tell you. They all had their own lingo. That, too, created quite an interesting atmosphere. Everybody trying to understand all these different people, and they were having trouble trying to understand us.

Aerial photo, Vanport City, 1942 [circa]; [C-10 - Oregonship albums Box 4 - M-343]

Aerial photo, Vanport City, circa 1943

I remember Vanport. I had friends who lived there. It was in a vegetable garden, in a flood plain, and it did eventually flood – but I’d moved to Denver by then.

[Editor’s note: Henry J. Kaiser built Vanport – Oregon’s second-largest city – to handle the enormous need for temporary wartime housing, including most of the immigrant black labor force. It was the largest public housing project in the nation and included facilities such as schools, movie theaters, and the first publicly funded daycare center built in the United States. On May 28, 1948, a dike failed during unseasonably high flooding on the Columbia River, resulting in at least 15 deaths and the total destruction of the city.]


Denver: Becoming a Kaiser Permanente Member

I came to Denver in October, 1947. Denver was that much behind the coast, on lots of things. Denver was a completely different region and atmosphere.

I took a loss in wages. Because of my union connections, I got a job with the Joint Council of Teamster locals. I started working for Local 17, the freight dock workers, where I worked for seven years before being fired when a new manager came in.

Postcard of Bess Kaiser Hospital, Oregon, printed 1959. Given by Rube Bingham to daughter Laura Robertson, with message on back. Floors 3-5 are numbered by hand. Gift of Laura Robertson.

Postcard of Bess Kaiser Hospital, Oregon, printed 1959. Given by Rube Bingham to daughter Laura Robertson, with message on back (below). Floors 3-5 are numbered by hand.

I got a job working for the Atomic Energy Commission in Grand Junction, so I moved there with my husband. The paperwork to get a clearance was incredible. It took me weeks to prepare it. An official came out to my house to talk about my application – which was very unusual – and he said that after contacting all of my references they didn’t get one negative comment. I got the job. I was on the procurement desk for the expiration division. That meant a worker brought the yellowcake samples to my desk and I took them to the lab. I contacted the warehouses to check on availability of equipment needed. If none was available I completed a nine-carbon form that I presented to the proper authority for his signature so that the equipment could be ordered.

Postcard of Bess Kaiser Hospital, Oregon, printed 1959. Given by Rube Bingham to daughter Laura Robertson, with satirical message on back "My summer home."

Postcard of Bess Kaiser Hospital, Oregon; satirical message on back “My summer home.”

I worked about one year, and in 1962 returned to work for the Teamsters in their Grand Junction office. I walked in their office and organized their records, which were a mess. This was just about time the Teamsters came under federal investigation. I had to stall them for two days because my boss was out of town.

It was through my Teamster employment that I became a Kaiser Permanente member, and have been ever since.

My mother stayed in Portland. Here’s a Bess Kaiser Hospital postcard from my mother, on which she wrote “My Summer Home. Third floor, May 10, 1964 – Broken arm; fourth floor, September 3, 1964 – head-on collision. Fifth floor, August 1962 – gall bladder operation.”


-Special thanks to the Colorado Kaiser Permanente communications team for setting up this interview, and to member Laura Robertson for her patience and support in producing this story.


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Dr. Charles M. Grossman, 1914-2013 – founding Northwest Kaiser Permanente physician

posted on August 16, 2013

 By Lincoln Cushing, Heritage writer

Dr. Charles Grossman, one of the 12 original partners of what was originally called the Northern Permanente Group (Oregon and Washington), passed away July 16, 2013, at age 98.

Founding Northern Permanente physicians with spouses at the El Rancho Roadhouse, Portland, Oregon 1949. Left to right: Frosty and Charles Grossman, Virginia and Barney Malbin, and nadja and Morris (Mo) Malbin. Photo courtesy Charles Grossman, published in The Portland Red Guide by Michael Munk.

Founding Northern Permanente physicians with spouses at the El Rancho Roadhouse, Portland, Oregon, 1949. Left to right: Frosty and Charles Grossman, Virginia and Barney Malbin, and Nadja and Morris (“Mo”) Malbin. Photo courtesy Charles Grossman, published in The Portland Red Guide by Michael Munk.

Dr. Grossman came to Vancouver, Wash., in October 1944 to join the 45 physicians of the Northern Permanente Foundation hospital. It was here that the wartime health plan covering 60,000 Kaiser shipyard workers in Oregon and Washington was in full swing. This was the formative crucible of what would later become the public Permanente Health Plan. Grossman, having just completed his medical residency at Yale, at which he took part in the first U.S. clinical trial with penicillin, joined the pioneering medical group “…induced he said, by the annual salary of $8,400—considerably more than Yale had offered.”[i]  Northwest physician and historian Dr. Ian MacMillan recounts a story of those early years: Dr. George Bookatz, a talented surgeon with a flair for humor, once admitted “a male with chest abscess” for a drainage procedure.  The patient was Grossman’s dog, an adoptee from the local animal shelter.  Its vigorous protests prompted another patient awaiting treatment to remark with alarm that the suffering patient in the adjoining cubicle had begun to bark like a dog.[ii] While treating the men and women in the shipyards Dr. Grossman looked into the prevalence of pneumonia, where the incidence was 18.5 per 1,000 employees, a figure much higher than among the workers’ families and almost twice that that Dr. Morris Collen was finding in the Richmond, Calif., shipyards.  Dr. Grossman concluded that certain workplace conditions played a role, with painters and chippers appearing to be at highest risk. [iii] But the samplings were too small and the time period too short to arrive at any definitive conclusions. When the war ended and the shipyards closed, the Northwest group suffered the same attrition as did the Oakland hospital. Dr. Grossman noted that within six weeks after V-J Day (August 14, 1945), about 35 of the 45 medical staff quit Permanente to return to private practice.[iv] Besides Grossman, that left Wallace Neighbor, brothers Morris and Barney Malbin, Ernest Saward, Walter Noehren, Norbert Fell, Ernest Spitzer, Katherine Van Leeuwen, pediatrician Margaret Ingram, and two only identified in a recent interview by Dr. Grossman as “Knos (Bookatz?) and Haeber.” Grossman recalled: All of us were firmly committed to the prepaid group health concept and we decided to rebuild Northern Permanente rather than allowing it to close down… With all the Kaiser shipyards on the West Coast closing, we had no patients or income.  In addition, we were faced with opposition from the leaders of both Oregon and Washington medical societies to “socialized medicine” as they considered Permanente to be. In public, they argued on a less ideological level that with the war over and the shipyards closed, the emergency that persuaded them to tolerate Northern Permanente was over.  Their opposition was so fierce that Permanente doctors were barred from membership in the local medical societies and we therefore had no admitting privileges at area hospitals. [v] In November 1945 Dr. Grossman began a year of absence from Northern Permanente to fill an internist position in the Southern California Permanente Medical Group at the Kaiser steel mill in Fontana, Calif. He rejoined the Northwest Permanente Medical Group in October 1946. Although the practice acquired the Vanport, Ore., hospital in 1947 to expand its service area, a 1948 flood wiped out both the town and the hospital. Dr. Grossman himself waded in to salvage a 50-pound EKG machine.

Dr. Charles Grossman

Dr. Charlie Grossman. Photo by Faith Cathcart, The Oregonian, March 2012

During the late 1940s the Permanente plans and hospitals experienced the fractious Cold War dynamics wracking the country at that time. Dr. Grossman’s political leanings were seen by management and some other physicians as negatively affecting the medical group’s relationship with the community. A series of struggles eventually resulted in his departure in 1950.[vi] Dr. Grossman continued private medical practice in the Portland area, and his political activism continued throughout his life. In 1990 he was arrested during a peaceful demonstration organized by Physicians for Social Responsibility, challenging the presence of a battleship capable of carrying nuclear arms berthed near the Portland Rose Festival. His court testimony describes the scene: “I was standing silently with several other doctors and a few others with a sign in my hand saying ‘Rose Festival is a fun time, we don’t need nuclear weapons.’ About 2:30 p.m. three or four policemen approached and asked us to leave. I asked why and was told that we have no right to stand in a city park carrying a sign. . . I put my sign down and said ‘O.K. I am not carrying a sign.’ His response was that if I did not leave within 30 seconds I would be forcibly removed. I said we were creating no disturbance and again asked why such a confrontation was necessary.  While I was writing [down his badge and name] my two arms were forcibly seized, forced behind my back and handcuffs were applied.” Dr. Grossman was one of the brave and committed physicians who stood by the Permanente practice during its most desperate times. He will be missed.   Short link to this article:


[i] Permanente in the Northwest, by Dr. Ian C. MacMillan, 2010, published by The Permanente Press.
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Grossman’s shipyard medical articles include: “Pneumococcal Pneumonia, A Review of 440 Cases,” Permanente Foundation Medical Bulletin, October 1945; “Pneumococcal Pericarditis Treated with Intrapericardial Penicillin,” New England Journal of Medicine, December 6, 1945; “Homologous Serum Jaundice Following the Administration of Commercial Pooled Plasma : A Report of Eight Cases including One Fatality,” (Grossman and Saward), New England Journal of Medicine, February 7, 1946;“Lobar Pneumonia in the Shipbuilding Industry: A Review of Five Hundred and Forty-four Cases over a One-year Period,” The Journal of Industrial Hygiene and Toxicology, September 1946.
[iv] Remarkably, no firm documentation exists of the names or even the number of physicians in Northern Permanente just after the war. In Medical Director Dr. Ernest Saward’s oral history he recollects “it was either five or six, I’m not absolutely certain of that.” Ernest W. Saward, M.D., “History of the Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program,” an oral history conducted in 1985 by Sally Smith Hughes, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 1986.
[v] “Present at the Creation: The Birth of Northwest Kaiser Permanente,” unpublished interview edited by Portland historian Michael Munk, 2013. Physician names corrected by Dr. Ian C. MacMillan.
[vi] The details of this struggle are presented in both Michael Munk’s interview with Grossman and in Permanente in the Northwest, by Dr. Ian C. MacMillan, 2010.

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