By mid-1942, the healthy, white, male workforce had left for the armed services, and our country needed to build ships faster than the enemy could sink them. Kaiser’s offer of good union jobs in the defense industry drew people from all over the country. Visualize the home front workforce – housewives, people of color, disabled veterans, people too young or too old to fight. Cities like Richmond had to step up with wraparound services. Housing and transportation were in high demand, so Kaiser built dormitories and brought in trolley cars from New York. For an increasingly female labor pool, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt told Kaiser he’d need to provide child care – and he did.
But of all these infrastructure improvements, one stands out. The high-quality medical care received by the workers in the Kaiser shipyards under the direction of Sidney Garfield, MD, helped us win the war.
Manual labor was not a novelty to this generation, but most had never experienced the hazards of intense industrial production. To keep 90,000 people safe and returning to the job the next day, the first aid stations, the Richmond Field Hospital, and the Oakland Permanente Foundation Hospital all had to perform flawlessly. Novel for heavy industry, a staff gynecologist supported women’s health. Shipyard newspapers carried suggestions about how to work safely. Practical medical experience was shared with other physicians around the country in a published journal. One of our doctors was so good at treating pneumonia that he got the first civilian doses of the life-saving drug penicillin. And all this high-quality care was offered without racial segregation.
The industrial health plan, free for all workers, was first extended as an affordable nonindustrial plan. Later, employee families were included. Why? Because if you got hurt away from the job, or if your child was sick, you were likely to miss work. The fight against fascism needed your able body.
Kaiser Permanente’s coming-of-age took place in these shipyards, with these workers. It’s an honor to help sponsor this site of national pride and remember that health care was, and is, a community investment.