September 16, 2013

Physician-nurse team helps Permanente medicine through early days

Dr. Cecil Cutting and nurse Millie Cutting were among the first medical staff at the Grand Coulee Dam worksite and the Richmond shipyards.

Cecil and Millie Cutting were among the first medical staff of the care programs set up by Henry Kaiser and Sidney Garfield, MD, for Grand Coulee Dam and Richmond Shipyard workers in the 1930s and 1940s.

Cecil and Millie Cutting, a couple that looms large in Kaiser Permanente’s early history, met in Northern California at Stanford University in the early 1930s. He was training to become a physician; she was a registered nurse with a degree from Stanford. They met on the tennis courts and married in 1935.

During her husband’s nonpaid internship, Millie Cutting worked two jobs — for a pediatrician during the day and an ophthalmologist in the evenings — to pay the bills. He was making $300 a month as a resident when Sidney Garfield, MD, contacted him about joining the medical care program for Henry Kaiser’s workers on the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington State.

At Grand Coulee, Millie Cutting exhibited her strength as a staff nurse and as a community volunteer. Probably her most significant contribution was the development of a well-baby clinic in a community church.

Well-baby clinic supported by madams

As a volunteer, she organized the clinic and went door to door soliciting funds for its operation. She had no qualms about knocking on the portals of the town’s brothels.

“The madams were very friendly,” Cecil Cutting told fellow physician John Smillie, author of a history of The Permanente Medical Group. “The community church provided the space and the houses of ill repute the money — a very compatible community.”

The Grand Coulee Dam was completed in 1940, and the medical staff and their families scattered. The Cuttings settled briefly in Seattle where Dr. Cutting set up a surgery practice.

But it wasn’t very long before World War II broke out and Dr. Garfield was called upon again to assemble the medical troops for a program at the Richmond, Calif., Kaiser Shipyards. Cecil Cutting was enlisted as the chief surgeon.

Garfield’s right-hand at wartime shipyards

Millie Cutting volunteered to work side by side with Sidney Garfield to get the medical care program up and running and to take charge of any job that needed to be done.

She recruited, interviewed, and hired nurses, receptionists, clerks, and even an occasional doctor, to staff the health care program that was set up in a hurry in 1942. She smoothed the way for newcomers and helped them find homes in the impossible wartime housing market.

Thoroughly adaptable Millie drove a supply truck between the Oakland and Richmond hospitals and the first aid stations and served as the purchasing agent for a time.

As she had done at Grand Coulee, Millie set up a well-baby clinic for shipyard workers’ families, and she opened her home in Oakland as a social center for the medical care staff.