The Kaspare Cohn Hospital and the Mt. Sinai Hospital and Clinic, Part Three

Editor’s note:  This third part of this excellent post by Boyle Heights Historical Society Advisory Board member Rudy Martinez takes us into the move and renaming of Kaspare Cohn Hospital to Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in East Hollywood, as well as the fascinating and timely controversy involving a purported cancer treatment trial supported by cereal titan Will Keith Kellogg and involving local institutions, including one at the former Cohn site as well as at White Memorial Hospital.  Part four of this post will appear a week from today so check back then.

By 1924, the Kaspare Cohn Hospital was only fourteen years old, but, for the administrators of the facility, the demand for a more comprehensive institution offering a wider degree of health services was undeniable. With a large number of needy and ailing patients, the hospital was struggling with 30 percent overcrowding and day-long waits by patients, while the facility was often forced to deny admissions. There was also a need to have an institution that could provide internships and teaching opportunities that were unavailable at other hospitals due to widespread anti-Semitism in the medical field.

There was also a desire to relocate the hospital from the current eastside location to an area where it could still be accessible to the Boyle Heights community as well as to the growing Jewish population living in the Hollywood/Westside area. Considerably more acculturated and affluent than the Orthodox, working-class Jews in the Eastside, the latter were also the hospital’s primary donation base, especially for its next phase. By the mid-Twenties, finding a suitable area to build a new, state-of-the-art hospital was already a priority.

The Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in East Hollywood, ca. 1920s.  From the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection.

In 1923, the Federation of Jewish Charities of Los Angeles was established to efficiently administer the endowment funds from various charitable organizations under a single network. In that same year, the organization kicked-off a “One Million Dollar Fund Drive,” with an event held at the Ambassador Hotel, this being the most ambitious fundraising campaign ever undertaken by the city’s Jewish community. The goal was to underwrite four immediate projects: the Jewish Orphans Home (today it is the Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services), two Boyle Heights-based projects – the Congregation Talmud Torah, better known as the Breed Street Shul, and a proposed Jewish social center at the corner of Soto and Michigan streets – as well as a new facility, at a site yet to be determined, to replace the Kaspare Cohn Hospital. 

Along with the successful One Million Dollar Drive, funding for the replacement of the hospital was also aided by generous contributions from the motion picture industry, and a $150,000 donation from Ben Meyer, a former president of the Kaspare Cohn Hospital, and Milton Getz. Both were not only senior executives of Union Bank (formerly the Kaspare Cohn Commercial and Savings Bank), but were sons-in-law of the late founder.    

A newspaper photo of White Memorial Hospital, Boyle Heights, 1930.

With contributions still coming in, property was purchased for the new hospital at 4833 Fountain Avenue, situated one block south of Sunset Boulevard in the East Hollywood area. The opening dedication for the completed Art Deco-styled hospital was held on May 11, 1930. It was an occasion that also introduced two new features: the admission policy was now officially “non-sectarian,” meaning that the new hospital would be open to all, while the other was the inauguration of the hospital’s new name: Cedars of Lebanon. 

A modern and comprehensive medical, research, and training facility for its day, the eight-story hospital had over 500 patient rooms, including a children’s and infants’ ward. It also featured a roof-top sun deck, a 300-person capacity auditorium, and a separate nurses’ residence. Continuing its charitable mission, the hospital also featured an entire floor dedicated to patients with no means to pay. But over the years, the well-equipped institution was just as well-known as the hospital of choice for numerous celebrities; Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley were treated there, and Mexican screen icon Jorge Negrete died at the facility in 1953.     

Los Angeles Times, 11 February 1930.

In 1976, Cedars of Lebanon left the Fountain Avenue location to merge with the Mount Sinai Hospital, another former eastside hospital, and form Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. But the former Cedars of Lebanon Hospital still stands today as a singularly, distinctive-looking structure. The following year, the entire medical campus was sold to the Church of Scientology to serve as their official, “Pacific Area Command Base.” The building was painted completely blue, with Scientology spelled out in sixteen-feet tall letters, along with an eight-pointed cross, at the top of the building.

In 1930, the same year the Kaspare Cohn Hospital closed its Whittier Boulevard location, the facility soon emerged, with different tenants, as the site of one of the most controversial medical episodes in American medical history. Early that year, the medical establishment was stunned when two San Francisco doctors, Walter B. Coffey and John. D. Humber, announced they were conducting clinical trials with a “potential cancer vaccine” that they described as a “potent extract” and “highly promising.” Obtained from the cortex of the adrenal glands in sheep, the doctors injected the “Coffey-Humber extract,” into patients with late-stage cancer. Insisting it was not a “cure for cancer, yet” the doctors, nevertheless, announced early trials showed a “high percentage [of patients] seemed to be free of the disease.” Nationwide excitement and anticipation ran high as, mostly, William Randolph Hearst-owned newspapers ran sensational stories that reported a cure for cancer was almost imminent, just as the country entered into a paralyzing economic depression. 

Times, 5 May 1930.

Enter, Will Keith Kellogg, the wealthy, Michigan-based cereal magnate, and philanthropist, known locally for establishing the W. K. Kellogg Arabian Horse Center in 1925 on the grounds on what is today, Cal Poly Pomona. Intrigued by the potential promise of the Coffey-Humber clinical trials, Kellogg established the W. K. Kellogg Research Foundation in early 1930. On February 21, the Los Angeles Times reported the foundation was providing a $500,000 endowment to the San Bernardino-based College of Medical Evangelists to conduct and expand the Coffey-Humber trials.

In 1930, the College of Medical Evangelists, founded by the Seventh Day Adventist Church, operated the highly-regarded Loma Linda teaching hospital near San Bernardino, the Glendale Sanatorium, and White Memorial Hospital in Boyle Heights, the latter being where a clinic for the Coffey-Humber trials had just opened. On March 24, the Times reported the Kellogg Research Foundation was leasing the former Kaspare Cohn Hospital buildings on Whittier Boulevard. With new medical equipment and renovated rooms to observe patients, the aim was to open the facility on May 15 and establish it as the “permanent headquarters” for the Coffey-Humber clinical trials. 
Doctors Coffey and Humber with wealthy supporter Grace Hammond Conners on the cover of Time magazine, 25 May 1931.

All this took place while the medical establishment publicly debated the efficacy of the Coffey-Humber trials, sounding eerily familiar to current debates about public health and the effectiveness of unproven vaccine treatments.  As early as February 1930, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) wrote that they “regretted the publicity on a cancer cure.” Noting the sensational claims by the lay press, the JAMA declared it was, “criminal for newspapers to arouse the hopes of cancer sufferers and to expend the limits of their funds to make the journey to California.” Nevertheless, shortly after the facility opened, desperate and hopeful patients from all over the country, “rich and poor,” suffering from late-stage cancer, began arriving at the former Cohn hospital site, as well as at the White Memorial Hospital clinic on Michigan Avenue in Boyle Heights, to participate in the Kellogg Foundation-sponsored cancer vaccine clinical trials.
The debate about the clinical trials was also highlighted on the front cover, with an accompanying lengthy article, in the May 25, 1931 issue of Time magazine. But the future of the trials took a critical turn that same month when the doctors were denied permission by the State of New York to conduct clinical trials at the Long Island estate of Grace Hammond Conners, a wealthy, 31-year-old widow, who was an enthusiastic supporter. Basically, the powerful and influential New York medical establishment emphatically voiced the growing consensus that the Coffey-Humber trials, which furnished little supportive data, showed no value as a treatment.
Times, 10 August 1931.

But soon thereafter, the results from their trials made it clear the extract was ineffective. On August 10, 1931, the Times reported that the Kellogg Research Foundation started to take steps to officially terminate its financial support for the Coffey-Humber trials and close all participating clinics, including those at the former Cohn Hospital site and at White Memorial Hospital. In November, the JAMA published a report on the trials by Dr. Rowland H. Harris, one of the foundation’s medical observers based at the Cohn hospital site. After observing 415 patients, Harris concluded that the treatments were not only ineffective, but often harmful to the patient.   
The site of the former Kaspare Cohn Hospital at the lower left of this aerial view taken in 1930, about the time the Kellogg Research Foundation leased the property for the Coffey-Humber cancer clinical trials.  From the University of California, Santa Barbara Aerial Photograph Collection.

To further cancer treatment research, the W. K. Kellogg Radiation Laboratory was established at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena in 1931, though the lab abandoned medicine a few years later to develop the facility into a world-renowned center for nuclear physics. But it also appears the Kellogg Foundation’s early support for the Coffey-Humber cancer trials has been completely erased from its public record and nothing about this episode is found, including in the published history of the foundation.