Bessie Fosburgh had a difficult childhood. Two weeks after Bessie was born on April 9, 1886, her mother died. Since her father Edgar traveled on business, Bessie stayed with her grandmother until her grandmother died when Bessie was six years old. Her father remarried but his new wife did not want Bessie to move in with them. Her unmarried uncle, Howard, then took care of Bessie. She adored her Uncle Howard and was looked after by a governess until she was sent to live with another uncle and his wife. When Howard married, Bessie was happy to return to his home. Unfortunately his wife was not pleased. She made Bessie’s life miserable and Bessie recalls, “She turned out to be hard and dictatorial, even relentlessly depriving my uncle of all freedom of personality and restricting me to the severest, plainest regime imaginable – clothes, hair, food, friends – everything.” During one Christmas visit to her father, Bessie remembers, “…he sighed when he saw this poor ugly duckling. ‘Oh Bess, your mother was so tiny, so dainty and lovely and you are so fat and with such hands and feet and oh, such clothes.'” The effect of her father’s comments on the adolescent Bessie must have been devastating. Her father soon realized that Howard’s wife was spending all of Bessie’s money on herself. He decided to send Bessie to a New England boarding school. She went to Howard Seminary and two years later enrolled at Dana Hall. In the 1905 Senior Class Book, Bessie is remembered in verse:
The boxes are full, and every seat,
An usher flowers brings,
There’s not a sound in the crowded house,
While Bessie Forsburgh [sic] sings.
After four years at Dana, she graduated in the class of 1905 when she was nineteen years old.
After graduation, Bessie studied music in Boston. While on vacation at Lake Placid, NY, Bessie had her photograph taken by Henry Kaiser. It was love at first sight for both of them, but Bessie’s father would not allow them to marry until Henry had established a stable business. Kaiser started a construction company that was responsible for the building of the Hoover and Grand Coulee Dams and the San Francisco—Oakland Bay Bridge. He pioneered a non-profit medical care program, the Kaiser Foundation Medical Care Plan, and at his shipyards during World War II perfected the assembly line production of almost 1,500 cargo ships. Bessie played a significant role in the development of all of these endeavors. She had a lifelong interest in health care and together with Eleanor Roosevelt during World War II, when women were recruited to help the war effort by building planes, bombs, ships and tanks, created the first industrial childcare centers for middle class women. Bessie, who had never know much family warmth in her youth, was deeply interested in the welfare of the men who worked in her husband’s factories and their families. All who knew her developed a special fondness for her and she was affectionately referred to as “Mother Kaiser.”
Bessie Kaiser, photograph. Dana Hall Archives, Wellesley, MA.
Gilford, Steve. On This Date in Kaiser Permanente History.
Senior Class Book 1905. Wellesley, MA: Dana Hall School, 1905
Originally published as Person of the Week, November 14, 2005