January 17, 2010

Review of Dr. Sidney Garfield’s biography

Contributed by Tom Debley, Former Heritage Archives director

Tom Debley’s biography of Sidney R. Garfield, released last year, sheds light on Garfield’s role as the founder and guiding force of the Kaiser Permanente Medical Care program. Debley brings Garfield out of the shadow of Henry J. Kaiser and fleshes out his fuzzy historical image with great detail.

“Everyone knows the Kaiser name, and specifically Henry J Kaiser,” writes professor and medical researcher Leon Speroff, MD, who reviewed “ Dr. Sidney R. Garfield: The Visionary Who Turned Sick Care Into Health Care” for the current issue (Winter 2009) of the Oregon Historical Quarterly.

Oregon Historical Quarterly Winter 2009 cover

But, Speroff wonders: How many people know Sidney R. Garfield, MD, who established and expanded the principle of prepaid, group practice with an emphasis on keeping people well?

Debley’s book is novel-like, telling Garfield’s story in a conversational and often humorous way. That’s one way to make his life’s work known. But the work of objectively analyzing Garfield’s contribution to contemporary health care is not yet finished, Speroff wrote.

“The story of Sidney Garfield in this book is compelling, but the book, although well written and a pleasure to read, is more like a Festschrift (book of tribute). One is impressed with the uniform praise (almost fawning) of Garfield and wonders whether an objective, more scholarly work would provide criticisms and character flaws that would lend an even greater dimension to this important man.

“Garfield deserves a full historical biography that would give greater credibility and understanding to the evolution of Kaiser Permanente and its contributions to American medicine,” Speroff wrote.

Author Debley, director of Heritage Resources for Kaiser Permanente, agrees with Speroff. In the book preface, Debley wrote: “This is not… a definitive biography. That awaits the work of some future scholar and medical historian.”

Debley said he appreciated Speroff’s kind words and is hoping someone will pick up where he left off with a full scholarly historical biography of Dr. Garfield. “We debated about this book and decided it was important to bring Dr. Garfield to a wide audience,” Debley said. “I’m hoping an academic or PhD candidate out there will take up the challenge.

“And given the nature of my work in a corporate history program, I feel most strongly that the definitive biography be by an independent researcher to whom our private archive would be fully open,” Debley said.

Speroff also identifies Debley’s book as a resource to inform the current health care reform debate: “Garfield died in his sleep at age 76, on December 29, 1984. He left a history that contains lessons for the present.

“As America struggles to provide effective and efficient health care in the 21st century, many of the concepts and plans being articulated can be found in Garfield’s story,” Speroff wrote.

The reviewer also refers to the history of Kaiser Permanente presented in Rickey Hendricks’ 1993 book “A Model for National Health Care: The History of the Kaiser Permanente” “It would be useful for present-day legislators to read,” Speroff wrote. Debley also recommends Hendricks as a source of more information about Sidney Garfield’s life and work.

Speroff, an OB-GYN, is founder and former director of the Women’s Health Research Unit at OHSU. He is the author of many books on women’s health as well as several historical books. His works include: “A Good Man: Gregory Goodwin Pincus, the Man, His Story, and the Birth Control Pill,” as well as the biography of Carlos Montezuma, MD, an American-Indian physician who was a prominent activist for Indian rights in the early 1900s.