March 21, 2018

Birth of a hospital

It was a labor of love.

And the “baby” was a short silent film about the building and opening of a flagship hospital in San Francisco, shot by one of Kaiser Permanente’s early pediatricians, John “Jack” Smillie, in the early 1950s.

This was a period when Kaiser Permanente was building several state-of-the-art hospitals in California. In addition to huge member growth, the fact that the medical establishment routinely denied Permanente physicians hospital privileges pushed Henry J. Kaiser to go out and build his own.

The San Francisco facility was built on the city block bounded by Geary Boulevard, O'Farrell Street, Lyon Street, and St Joseph Avenue. The Berkeley Daily Gazette gushed about this $3 million hospital “incorporating advances in design and equipment that are expected to influence future hospital planning.” It was Kaiser Permanente’s 16th medical facility, with “ultramodern” features, including “vast amount of glass in its exterior and interior construction, separate corridors for hospital personnel and the public, decentralized nurses' stations, hotel-type floors for convalescents, self-service devices for patients and a private nursery plan.”

Dr. John Smillie in top hat and tails with wife and daughter, breaking ground for new SF hospital, 1952.
Dr. John Smillie in top hat and tails with wife and daughter, breaking ground for new SF hospital, 1952.

An amateur photographer, Dr. Smillie shot this 16mm footage of the 7-story, 225-bed hospital between 1952 and 1955. It includes an homage to the earlier San Francisco facilities that served well when the health plan was opened to the public in 1945 — the leased Harbor Hospital at 331 Pennsylvania Avenue, the clinic at 515 Market Street — as well as the Oakland hospital and medical offices across the bay. It featured the hospital groundbreaking on April 27, 1952, and an initial move-in day of September 1, 1953, before the construction was even finished.

Dr. Smillie (1917–2002) was the first full-time pediatrician at Kaiser Permanente’s San Francisco Medical Center, where he practiced from 1949 to 1977. He served as chief of pediatrics from 1954 to 1961, assistant physician-in-chief from 1957 to 1961, and physician-in-chief from 1961 to 1971.

Dr. Smillie noted in a 1987 oral history, “I knew San Francisco would grow and become a major medical center of the Program, and I had hoped to build up a pediatrics staff of about 10 pediatricians, and start a residency training program in pediatrics, and train young doctors to be good pediatricians.” He wryly lamented that by 1960, “I was still a very young doctor . . . [and] I had already achieved what I'd set out to do in the first place.”