Van Ens: Security in numbers heals our ailments

Eating alone during the holidays puts us in the funk. Dine with friends and family, we like to eat with others gathered around a meal. The guests at our table heal us from the feeling of being forgotten or left out of life. We are precious to the friends who dine with us who admire our strengths and put up with our shortcomings.

Grand Rapids, Michigan is my hometown, as was an African-American chemist named Loney Clinton Gordon during the Great Depression. She felt in her bones the warm, invigorating power of a community that is committed to helping her, such as our experience of strength in numbers when we dine with family and friends.

God blessed Loney Gordon with a sharp mind. She has done research in communities ravaged by incurable diseases. I am indebted to Kate Kooyman, a resident of Grand Rapids, pastor of the Reformed Church in America, for reminding me of Loney Gordon’s accomplishments in medical research that few, sadly, remember today.



Ms Gordon did not do medical research alone in a lab before she discovered a vaccine to cure whooping cough. Gordon teamed up with two teachers from Grand Rapids – Grace Eldering and Pearl Kendrick – who were also extremely gifted science researchers. The trio pooled their resources to develop a vaccine against pertussis, a disease inflaming the lungs of young children, which killed them. No cure existed for this terrible pandemic which was infecting young people.

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 establishments did not have protective rights. Other medical researchers have treated them like laboratory “rats”.



The three colleagues from Grand Rapids have banded together. They invited parents of children in my hometown with whooping cough to participate in their field immunization tests. Practicing (medical force thanks to) “security in numbers”, they shared with families the results of their latest discoveries.

This spirit of regrouping in joint ventures is not new. The ancient Jews climbed the foothills of Judea leading to Jerusalem where they believed God was seated on his earthly throne in the Great Temple. The travelers shared a song of faith rather than presenting a soloist to lead a grateful choir. Psalm 100: 1-2 states: “Make a merry chorus to the Lord, all countries. Serve the Lord with joy. Enter into his presence singing.

The three researchers joined in their song of hope, too, to find a cure for pertussis by including families from their hometowns to participate in their research studies. After hearing about the search for a cure by this community, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt funded trial tests.

The townspeople delivered the goods for a cure. More than 4,000 families have accepted the risk of being shot in the arms, using trial vaccines.

Community partnership with medical researchers in field trials led to the discovery of an effective vaccine to cure pertussis. Its deployment has placed Grand Rapids on the world stage. Whooping cough is no longer classified as one of the leading causes of death in young children. Youth deaths have plummeted from the once dreaded disease.

The global community has thanked the heroic inhabitants of Grand Rapids for taking risky vaccines. “Because of their courage (of the three women researchers),” writes Reverend Kate Kooyman, “to pursue their love of science, to persist in their care for a suffering community, to join together through social division – d countless lives have been saved. And they could do it because they lived in a city that served as a foundation for trust in the common good and for hope.

After getting married on New Years Day 1772, Thomas Jefferson is said to have traded his life in place of his stepson and daughter who died of whooping cough. This disease killed her children, inflaming their lungs, forcing them to die in agony, breathless. The parents felt helpless because no cure had been found for this contagion.

Before Jefferson married young widow Maratha Wayles, she was married in 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 of whooping cough.

Martha and Thomas had six children in quick succession during their short marriage of just over 10 years. With each pregnancy, Martha lost her strength, which she never recovered. A few months before she died on September 6, 1782, she gave birth to their youngest daughter, Lucy Elizabeth.

This girl died of whooping cough two and a half years after Jefferson’s wife died. 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 death when the letter arrived in Paris by boat.

Finding a cure for whooping cough in Grand Rapids Michigan during the Great Depression shows a core belief of the Christmas season at work. Together, we intervene during health crises. We pool resources. We reach out to help each other. We work for the common good. We treat everyone we meet as neighbors and do not put their health at risk by remaining unvaccinated.

Today we hear hyper-individualistic apologies from the unvaccinated “doing their own thing,” which Loney Clinton Gordon rejected. She captured the cooperative spirit of Biblical Jews traveling to Jerusalem, repeated when residents of Grand Rapids joined in arm shots to reduce whooping cough.

Loney Clinton Gordon praised the Grand Rapids community. Grateful to the residents who volunteered to assess the 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 recalls.

Practicing Christmas goodwill through “safety in numbers” by getting vaccinated is just another remedy for COVID-19.


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