March 9, 2015

The Atomedic hospital loses its glow

Details of “The Hospital of Tomorrow,” This Week magazine, January 17, 1960.

Contributed by Lincoln Cushing, Archivist and Historian

Second in a 2-part series

Atomedic hospital visionary Dr. Hugh C. MacGuire pitched his proposal hard to Kaiser Permanente's founding physician Dr. Sidney Garfield. In a letter dated November 25, 1960, he wrote:

You are already in command of a large, well defined medical care program with the backing of one of the most progressive imaginative and creative organizations of our time at your disposal. If we could set up and develop our Atomedic concept within the confines of Kaiser and call on the talent already available there we could have our units covering the globe within a year.

Dr. Garfield then proceeded to educate himself about the medical applications of atomic radiation.

He wrote to Marshall Brucer, M.D., chairman of the Medical Division at the Oak Ridge Institute of Nuclear Studies in Tennessee. In a reply dated December 8, 1960, Dr. Brucer conceded: “Problems of medical sterilization are not as simple as they might appear.” However, he went on to suggest that Dr. Garfield might be asking too small a question:

…All of these problems are minute if you consider that the radiation-producing devices can also be used for every other thing in a hospital. I have suggested to one of the reactor producers that if the hospital were built around a core of reactors, then all of these problems of heat, light, sterilization, and everything else that is necessary in a hospital can be done at remarkably cheap cost.

Graphic from "Pilot Hospital" for Atomedic Research Center in Montgomery, Alabama; Michael Hack, Associates Architects, 1960

Dr. Garfield requested a copy of Proceedings of the International Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy, held in Geneva 8 August to 10 August, 1955, Volume 15, Applications of Radioactive Isotopes and Fission Products in Research and Industry, which was purchased for him at the United Nations Bookstore in New York City by Charles E. Foster from Kaiser’s Washington, D.C., office.

However, by February, 1961 Dr. Garfield’s enthusiasm for an atomic hospital began to decay.

He wrote to Dr. MacGuire informing him “…the current recession in business makes it practically impossible to stir up any real interest in your new venture with the Kaiser organization at this time.”

There is no further evidence that Dr. Garfield, or Kaiser Permanente, continued to participate in the Atomedic project after this date.

It’s not clear when the Atomedic hospital design lost its nuclear reactor feature and branding; by 1963 there was no mention of it in their literature or in news accounts. Instead, the title was described as referring to its “application of atomic age principles to medicine.”

Atomedic prototype, a design first installed in Montgomery, Ala. and later at New York World's Fair, 1964

In 1963 a first prototype hospital — without a nuclear reactor — was built in Montgomery, Ala.; it was later dismantled, transported, and re-erected in Woodstock, Ga., where it operated for more than 20 years. A second prototype was the official hospital of the 1964 World’s Fair in New York.

In their hospital design title Healthcare Architecture in an Era of Radical Transformation by hospital design scholars Stephen Verderber and David J. Fine, the authors noted several serious hurdles for the Atomedic hospital:

First, it was expensive. In 1965, the cost was about $19,000 per bed, and the figure was higher in extreme climates or where local fire codes required automated smoke detectors, sprinkler systems, smoke barriers, or fire-rated doors. Finally, the hospital did not meet Hill-Burton eligibility standards for federal construction funding.

The Atomedic Foundation continues to this day; its motto is “Focused on health through standardization of processes and systems.”

And Kaiser Permanente continues to this day to explore innovative hospital designs and develop alternative energy sources, such as solar and wind.


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