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The White Plague in the City of Angels

Caroline Luce, Author

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Cedars of Lebanon, 1930

In 1926, Kaspare Cohn’s son-in-law, Ben R. Meyer, was replaced as president of Kaspare Cohn Hospital by Lemuel Goldwater. Born in San Francisco, Goldwater ran a successful garment factory in the fashion district of downtown Los Angeles and was, as Kaspare Cohn had been, a leading member of Congregation B’nai B’rith. After taking over the presidency of the hospital, he launched an ambitious campaign to update and expand its facilities.

Goldwater recognized that the health care needs of Los Angeles’ Jewish population had changed considerably over the course of the hospital’s first two decades due to several factors. First, the rates of tuberculosis infection were dropping, due in part to the success of the aggressive public health campaigns waged by Progressive Era reformers and the availability of both the JCRA’s Sanatorium in Duarte and facilities established by the Public Health Department to help more impoverished victims of the disease get treatment. Second, the technology used to diagnose tuberculosis had improved considerably, including a new technique for identifying the disease that made it easier to catch the disease in its early stages.  Known as the “Mantoux Test,” it involved an intradermal injection of tuberculin (also known as purified protein derivative tuberculin or PPD) that caused an immune reaction in the skin indicating the presence of tuberculosis. And finally, Goldwater recognized that the center of the Jewish population was shifting, in part due to the growth of Hollywood’s film studios. Although Boyle Heights was still home to over 30,000 Jewish residents, the Jewish population in Hollywood, Los Feliz, and the neighborhoods surrounding the “Miracle Mile” on Wilshire Boulevard had grown considerably as well. Goldwater and the leaders of Kaspare Cohn decided that the hospital no longer needed to be focused on treatment of tuberculosis in Boyle Heights, but instead could become a comprehensive, cutting-edge medical center to serve the needs of the growing Jewish population throughout the city.

In the late 1920s, Goldwater, along with Joseph Y. Baruch, the chairman of the finance committee, and the leaders of the Federation of Jewish Welfare Organizations launched a "One Million Dollar Campaign" to raise money for three projects. The first objective of the campaign was to construct a Modern Social Center in Boyle Heights, the second to expand the Jewish Orphans’ Home, and the third, to erect a new Jewish Hospital to replace Kaspare Cohn. The campaign raised over $775,000 in just a matter of months, enough to allot $200,000 to the Orphan’s Home at Vista Del Mar and $500,000 to erect the new hospital. They purchased a large plot of land in Hollywood on Fountain Avenue between Catalina and Berendo to erect the hospital as well as a home for the hospital’s nursing staff. While Kaspare Cohn Hospital in Boyle Heights had been a more residential facility, much like a sanatorium, the new hospital on Fountain Avenue was built with all of the components of a modern medical facility, with specific departments for “general medicine, surgery, children’s, maternity, eye-ear-nose and throat, mental hygiene, mothers’ conference, skin diseases, chest diseases, heart diseases, physical therapy and dental care.” [10] 

Named Cedars of Lebanon, the new facility was large and comprehensive. The main entrance on the first floor opened on to a large waiting room with a nurse’s station leading to the outpatient clinic on one side of the building, while the other side housed the hospital’s administrative offices, the doctor’s library, a small drug store and the large kitchen to supply food to the patients, as well as a smaller kosher kitchen. The physical therapy and x-ray departments were located on the ground floor, and the entire seventh floor at the top of the facility was devoted to the surgical department, including aseptic operating rooms with mechanical ventilation, two of which had viewing platforms, and obstetrics delivery rooms. Patient rooms occupied the floors in between, some individual rooms and four-bed wards for the hospital’s various departments, all of which had central heating and ventilation as well. The new hospital also included a smaller nurse’s home to house the hospital’s staff and a special unit of patient rooms dedicated to the care of those in need of medical care that were unable to pay, an extension of Kaspare Cohn Hospital’s original mission.

In a special issue celebrating the success of the “One Million Dollar Campaign” and the opening of the hospital, the editors of the B’nai B’rith Messenger described the hospital’s purpose and explained its new name:
As we dedicate this beautiful Temple of Health we think of that distant land and time when the Cedars of Lebanon cast their healthful shades over a sun-parched land and a people…We the Jews of Los Angeles, with our money, and with our enthusiasm have planted a new Cedar of Lebanon, a tree whose health-giving powers are not mystical, but scientific; whose opportunity for rest-giving is not merely symbolic but actual and in accordance with the highest medical standards. [11]

Because Cedars of Lebanon was designed and built as a modern medical facility intended to serve a much broader set of patients than Kaspare Cohn Hospital, its facilities for the treatment of tuberculosis were integrated into its ward for diseases of the chest and lungs. Rather than treat tuberculars in a separate and isolated facility as in Boyle Heights, they were cared for alongside those suffering from asthma, bronchitis, emphysema and other chronic lung diseases. No longer were tuberculars regarded as threats to public health and contagions who had to be separated and segregated from the rest of society, but rather as patients like any other.

Presiding over this shift in the way that victims of tuberculosis were treated at the hospital was Dr. Jacob J. Singer, who was hired as the hospital’s Senior Attending Physician in 1937. Dr. Singer had trained at Washington University Medical School in St. Louis, where he worked closely with Dr. Evarts A. Graham, a Professor of Surgery who had established “the first modern chest clinic” at Barnes Hospital in St. Louis. Together, Singer and Graham pioneered several surgical strategies for treating the disease, experimented with treatments, and performed the first pneumonectomy (removal of an entire lung). At Cedars of Lebanon, Dr. Singer helped to transform the way the hospital treated the disease by situating the care of victims of tuberculosis among a broader spectrum of lung diseases.
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