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Van Ens: Safety in numbers cures what ails us

Eating alone during holidays puts us in a funk. Dining with friends and family, we enjoy eating with others gathered at a meal. Guests at our table cure us of feeling forgotten or pushed to life’s sidelines. We are precious to friends dining with us who admire our strengths and put up with our faults.

Grand Rapids, Michigan, is my hometown, as it was for an African American chemist named Loney Clinton Gordon during the Great Depression. She felt in her bones the warm, bracing power of a community pitching in to help, like our experiencing strength in numbers when we dine with family and friends.

God blessed Gordon with a sharp mind. She did research in communities ravaged by diseases lacking cures. I am indebted to Grand Rapids resident Kate Kooyman, a Reformed Church in America minister, for reminding me of Gordon’s accomplishments in medical research that few, unfortunately, remember today.



Gordon did not do medical research alone in a lab before discovering a vaccine to cure whooping cough. Gordon teamed up with two Grand Rapids teachers — Grace Eldering and Pearl Kendrick — who were enormously gifted scientific researchers, too. This trio pooled resources to develop a vaccine for whooping cough, a disease inflaming young children’s lungs that killed them. No cure existed for this terrible pandemic infecting youngsters.

During the Great Depression, it was common to field test vaccines on children living in isolated orphanages and institutional homes on the outskirts of cities. Children in these facilities lacked protective rights. Other medical researchers treated them like laboratory rats.



The three Grand Rapids colleagues banded together. They invited parents of children in my hometown battling whooping cough to participate in their vaccine field tests. Practicing (medical strength through) “safety in numbers,” they shared with families results of their latest findings.

This spirit of coming together in joint ventures is not new. Ancient Jews climbed Judean foothills leading to Jerusalem where, they believed, God sat on his earthly throne in the Great Temple. Travelers shared a song of faith rather than featuring a soloist to lead a grateful chorus. Psalm 100:1-2 states: “Make a joyful chorus to the Lord, all ye lands. Serve the Lord with gladness. Come into His presence with singing.”

The three researchers joined in their song of hope, also, of finding a cure for whooping cough by including hometown families to participate in their research studies. After hearing of this community’s search for a cure, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt funded trial tests.

City residents delivered the goods for a cure. Over 4,000 families accepted the risk of getting shots in the arms, using trial vaccines.

Community partnering with medical researchers in field tests led to the discovery of an effective vaccine to cure whooping cough. Its rollout put Grand Rapids on the world’s stage. Whooping cough no longer ranked among diseases as a major killer of young children. Youngsters’ deaths plummeted from this once-dreaded disease.

The world community thanked heroic Grand Rapids residents for taking risky vaccine shots. “Because of their (the three women researchers’) courage,” writes the Reverend Kate Kooyman, “to pursue their love of science, to persist in their care for a suffering community, to partner across social division — countless lives were saved. And they could do it because they lived in a city that served as a foundation of trust in the common good and for hope.”

After marrying on New Year’s Day, 1772, Thomas Jefferson would have traded his life in place of his stepson and daughter who died from whooping cough. This disease killed his children, inflaming their lungs, which forced them to die in agony, gasping for breath. Parents felt helpless because no cure had been found for this contagion.

Before Jefferson married young widow Maratha Wayles, she was wed to Bathurst Skelton and gave birth to a boy named Johnny. Bathurst died after two years of marriage, leaving Martha to raise Johnny as a 19-year-old widow.

Jefferson intended to adopt Johnny, but he died from whooping cough.

Martha and Thomas had six children in quick succession during their short marriage of a little over 10 years. With every pregnancy, Martha lost strength, which she never regained. Months before dying on Sept. 6, 1782, she delivered their youngest daughter, Lucy Elizabeth.

This daughter died of whooping cough two and a half years after Jefferson’s wife passed away. Adding to his misery, Jefferson then left Lucy Elizabeth with relatives in Virginia to serve as our nation’s minister (ambassador) to France (1784-1789). He learned months after her death of Elizabeth’s passing when letter arrived in Paris by ship.

Finding a cure for whooping cough in Grand Rapids Michigan during the Great Depression shows a core Christmas season conviction at work. Together we pitch in during health crises. We pool resources. We extend a hand to help each other. We work for the common good. We treat whomever we meet as neighbors and do not jeopardize their health by staying unvaccinated.

Today, we hear hyper-individualistic excuses from the unvaccinated who “do their own thing,” which Loney Clinton Gordon rejected. She caught the cooperative spirit of biblical Jews traveling to Jerusalem, repeated when Grand Rapids’ residents joined for shots in arms to reduce whooping cough.

Loney Clinton Gordon praised the Grand Rapids community. Grateful for residents volunteering to evaluate vaccines, what stood out in her memory? “Perhaps the most interesting fact was the demonstration of what can be accomplished by a whole community working together,” she recollected.

Practicing Christmas goodwill through “safety in numbers” by getting vaccinated adds up to cures for COVID-19.


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