December 16, 2010

Remembering our Kaiser Permanente history to face the future

Debley with 1953 Kaiser Manhattan at the dedication of the new Kaiser Foundation Rehabilitation Center in Vallejo February 2010. The center was first established in 1947.

Tom Debley, Heritage director

It’s time for me to say farewell after 15 years with Kaiser Permanente. The last seven years have been as founding director of Heritage Resources, our history program. But at the end of the day on Dec. 17, I will head off to new adventures in retirement.

Do not fear, my able colleagues Bryan Culp and Ginny McPartland will carry on the history work in Heritage Resources!

So what does one say to many friends, colleagues and Kaiser Permanente history buffs other than good-bye?

For me, I quote the literary great, Robert Penn Warren: “History cannot give us a program for the future, but it can give us a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity, so that we can better face the future.”

Recently, I was reminded of the importance of this — and a key reason why we maintain a historic archive at Kaiser Permanente. It came as an inquiry on our History of Total Health Blog from John Herron, a history professor at the University of Missouri, who had read a blog about Rachel Carson and Kaiser Permanente’s environmental history by our intern, Jac Brown.

Carson’s last public lecture prior to her death was delivered at an October 1963 Kaiser Permanente symposium attended by 1,500 doctors, scientists, medical students and journalists at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco.

Debley is a familiar figure at the Rosie the Riveter/WWII Homefront national park in Richmond. This is from our KP history booth at the annual homefront festival.

This was a year after publication of Carson’s then very controversial book “Silent Spring,” critiqued in 1962 in Time Magazine, which concluded: “Many scientists sympathize with Miss Carson's love of wildlife, and even with her mystical attachment to the balance of nature. But they fear that her emotional and inaccurate outburst in Silent Spring may do harm by alarming the non-technical public, while doing no good for the things that she loves.”

Today, of course, Carson’s “Silent Spring” is a classic of the 20th century and she is considered the catalyst for the modern environmental movement.

Quite naturally, Professor Herron wanted to know why the then vice president, and later president, of Kaiser Foundation Health Plan and Hospitals, Dr. Clifford Keene, invited such a controversial figure to lead off a public service symposium, the theme of which was “Man Against Himself.”  We sent him materials for writings he and other scholars are preparing for the 50th anniversary of the publication of “Silent Spring.”

And that’s one of two reasons why we have a history program. One is to share stories of our history with our physicians, staff and communities. The other is to be here for scholars, museums and others who seek historical insights.

Debley speaking about his biography of Sidney Garfield, MD, at the Commonwealth Club August 2009. Photo by Joe Paolazzi

I started our Heritage Resources program in 2003.  Professor Herron’s recent question reminded me of the day in 2003 that I first read a one-paragraph item about Rachel Carson’s lecture in a list of “highlights of the year 1963” in an old annual report.

Immediately, I flagged this event as something around which to begin collecting documents for archival purposes.  Why?  This was a high-water mark that helps illustrate why Kaiser Permanente is a recognized leader in sustainability, because sustainability is important to building healthy communities.

Today, we have Ms. Carson’s lecture text, copies of the correspondence between her and KP planning for her presentation, and other documentation.

As a result, we have collected and archived a wide array of historical materials.  A mere handful of these documents illustrate how we stand on the shoulders of other leaders like Rachel Carson:

  • Founding physician Sidney Garfield was looking for sustainable practices and was recycling in the Great Depression and during and after World War II;
  • It was a Kaiser Industries executive who was among those who founded The League to Save Lake Tahoe in 1957, and coined the phrase seen on bumper stickers and elsewhere to this day: “Keep Tahoe Blue”;
  • Kaiser Steel was pioneering pollution control equipment in the 1950s and 60s — before the modern environmental movement and before the first Earth Day in 1970;
  • In the early 1970s, employees at the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Santa Clara, California, formed an Ecology Committee with an objective of teaching employees “ecological common sense”;
  • In the 1980s, employees in Vallejo, California, were honored for reducing energy consumption by half in five years;
  • Today, the efforts continue with Kaiser Permanente adding solar power generation to 15 of our facilities by next summer.  These groundbreaking projects will eliminate purchase and disposal of 40 tons of harmful chemicals and dramatically reduce KP's use of fossil fuels.

Our commitment to sustainability is but one example of Kaiser Permanente’s mission to improve the health of its members and of the communities in which they live.

History reminds us, as Robert Penn Warren said, of who we have been, why we are who we are, and where we are headed if we remain true to our values and mission — as individuals and as institutions.