March 4, 2015

Atomedics — the future hospital that never was

Floor plan, Michael Hack Associates. "Pilot Hospital" Atomic Research Center prospectus from Atomedics, 1960. "Reactor" is in the center.

Contributed by Lincoln Cushing, Archivist and Historian

Atomedics logo, from 1960 letterhead; note caduceus in center of atom.

That’s great news. But in the early 1960s, “renewable energy” was not much of a priority, and the industrial juggernaut that propelled the country after the end of World War II was fixated on the alternative power source of the period — atomic energy. The U.S. government and many industries sought ways to exploit the miracle of fission, and hospitals were enticed by this everlasting power.

This issue would attract two parts of Henry J. Kaiser’s far-flung organization — the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan and Hospitals (as cutting-edge users of this technology) and Kaiser Aluminum, since several of the proposals sought to use the new geodesic domes as shells.

One of the primary proponents of combining atomic power and health care was Canadian-born Hugh C. MacGuire, M.D., of the Atomedic Research Center. He was described in news accounts as being a leading pediatric surgeon, and developed the "Atomedic" concept in 1953 with the noble purpose of making health care accessible and affordable.

His prototype aluminum hospital was designed to serve about 90 percent of the average community's hospital and clinical needs, with the remaining 10 percent of highly critical or specialized cases referred to major medical centers. Atomedic's lightweight metal construction would make possible an airlift of the entire 22- to 44-bed structure to any site in the world in a matter of hours. After assembly and use, the building could be disassembled and moved to a new location with relative ease, including the self-contained nuclear power plant.

An earlier "Atom Era" hospital such as the proposed new medical center for U.C. Los Angeles in 1949 was also futuristic, but did not include an atomic pile in the basement. There was a plan for an "atomic hospital" to be built that same year at the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, NY, the first postwar atomic pile in the U.S.; news stories noted "It is impossible to move an atomic energy pile to a hospital, so the Brookhaven scientists plan to do the next best thing: bring the patients to the pile." In 1967 CBS television's Walter Cronkite aired a story on the nuclear medicine practiced there.

The Atomedic's architectural details were handled by Atlanta’s Michael Hack Associates. This was a fresh and complex design challenge — a lightweight, strong, and versatile self-contained modern hospital. The nuclear reactor should be “designed so that they may be parachuted into inaccessible areas.” Electronic patient monitoring would utilize state-of-the-art sensors, data processing, and communications systems. The facility would rest on a hollow pontoon foundation that could be filled with air (for floating on water), potable water, or earth.

Atomedic held two earlier “conceptual” symposia in 1958 and 1959, but it was in 1960 that the project began to take off.

On January 17, 1960, This Week magazine (a nationally syndicated supplement in Sunday newspapers between 1935 and 1969) ran a three-page article extolling the virtues of “The Hospital of Tomorrow.” It was endorsed by Lewis M. Orr, president of the American Medical Association, who gushed:

The proposed Atomedic Hospital is an exciting and dramatic concept which has far-reaching implications for the future practice of medicine. The project is geared to the coming space age and geared, also, to the prime objective of medicine — supplying the highest quality medical care at the lowest practical cost.

Atomic sterilizer detail, "The Hospital of Tomorrow," This Week magazine, 1/17/1960.
Atomic sterilizer detail, "The Hospital of Tomorrow," This Week magazine, 1/17/1960.

The article boasted of cost savings resulting from eliminating staff and streamlining processes. Atomedic would have no laundry (“The Atomedic Hospital will use disposable cellulose-fiber 'linens’ and disposable eating utensils”) and reduced kitchen staff, replaced by “wall cookers” for frozen food prepared elsewhere. Sanitary? You bet. “The hospital will be kept germ-free with ultra-violet light or a small cobalt-60 radioactive unit, which will sterilize the air and instruments. One graphic was captioned: “Nurse puts instruments on belt which takes them past radiation unit.”

Kaiser Permanente founding physician Dr. Sidney Garfield attended a conference on Atomedics in Montgomery, Alabama, on Nov. 15-16, 1960. Dr. Garfield’s title at the time was “Vice President in Charge of Construction, Kaiser Foundation Hospitals.” Also present was Mr. J.R. Shaw, from Kaiser Aluminum’s Atlanta office.

Dr. Garfield was interviewed in the local newspaper, which led with his endorsement for Atomedic: “A pioneer in non-conventional hospital construction Wednesday termed Dr. Hugh C. MacGuire’s proposed Atomedic Research Center a ‘magnificent idea.’"

hospital lobby
Brand-new Kaiser Permanente Walnut Creek hospital lobby, 1953.

Dr. Garfield was in fact deeply interested in improved hospital design, and had been ever since 1933 when he began his practice in the remote Mojave Desert. Note the similarity between his 1953 circular lobby for the new Walnut Creek, Calif., hospital and that of Atomedic. Years later he humbly admitted to the New York Times magazine “Hospital design is sort of a hobby of mine.”

Soon afterwards Dr. Garfield wrote to Dr. MacGuire and told him that he would “… discuss the entire subject with the various Kaiser executives.”


Material for this story culled from The Permanente Medical Group archives.