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Medical Milestones

From fluoridated water to generic drugs
and from rehabilitative care to joint
implants, West Michigan has been a
frequent health care pioneer.

By Tim Gortsema

Grand Rapids earned the moniker “Furniture City” in the late 1800s, and West Michigan is known around the world as the capital of the office furniture industry. What might not be so well known, however, are the region’s contributions to medicine and health care, and how those contributions helped shape disease control, patient care and rehabilitation nationally and internationally.

Call them the area’s medical milestones.

“When you travel and talk to medical people, there are certain things that we are known for — things that are reputational,” said Lody Zwarensteyn, president of Alliance for Health, a West Michigan-based health care advocacy/watchdog group formed in 1948 and itself a pioneer for similar organizations nationwide.

Some of those innovations are historically prominent, such as Grand Rapids’ citywide fluoridation program. In 1945, Grand Rapids adjusted the fluoride content of its water supply to 1.0 parts per million and became the first city to implement community water fluoridation while studying its effects on tooth decay among the city’s children. According to the National Cancer Institute, by 1992 more than 60 percent of the U.S. population served by public water systems had access to water fluoridated at approximately 1.0 ppm, the optimal level to prevent tooth decay. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls fluoridation of water “one of the greatest achievements in public health in the 20th century.”

In the 1930s, Pearl Kendrick, Grace Eldering and Loney Gordon developed the first viable vaccine for pertussis (whooping cough) while heading the Grand Rapids branch laboratory of the Michigan Department of Public Health. Field trials were conducted on local children, and they were the first researchers to develop a shot that combined the pertussis vaccine and the diphtheria toxoid vaccine. Their groundbreaking efforts shaped the approach to modern clinical trials.

Other medical milestones may not receive as much attention, but they are no less important.
Take hemorrhoids, for example.

A bit of background
What would become the Ferguson-Droste-Ferguson Clinic and Ferguson Hospital was started in 1929 when three Grand Rapids doctors split from a practice at the local Burleson Sanitarium and formed the FDF Sanitarium in the Park Place Building downtown.


Dr. John MacKeigan, who completed his colon and rectal surgery residency at the Ferguson Clinic in 1974, was inducted into the Medical Hall of Fame in 2004.

Their specialty was colorectal medicine and treatment, hardly a dinner table topic. But that would change when screen star and Academy Award-winner Loretta Young came to Grand Rapids for hemorrhoid surgery.

“There was this whole myth about treatment,” Zwarensteyn said, “but she came to Grand Rapids to have her hemorrhoids taken care of and went back to Hollywood and told everyone about it. Pretty soon they were all coming here.”

Whether Young and her Hollywood cohorts had any effect on Ferguson’s medical mission is doubtful, but Zwarensteyn said that bit of publicity gave the Grand Rapids’ practice credibility in some circles.

“Now, hemorrhoid removal, in the pantheon of medical history, is not as important as, say, heart surgery,” he said. “But the fact of the matter is that Ferguson took a niche program, thoroughly trained proctologists, and then sent them around the world (to practice medicine). It was unbelievably important.”

Treatment innovators
About that same time, a small group of nurses at Pine Rest Christian Hospital took umbrage to what they referred to as the “secular” approach to medical care for the mentally ill as it was practiced in state institutions. Their religious views of the sanctity of life were incompatible with practices in the late 1940s, which almost always incorporated confinement and sometimes went so far as to include shock therapy and lobotomies.

According to a history of Hope Network, which became an entity independent from Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services in 1985, these nurses started a new form of rehabilitative care for mentally ill patients that included recreational activities. In essence, the goal was to get patients out of their rooms and, through interactive supervision, back to enjoying life again — made even more feasible by the introduction of drug therapy at about the same time.

If Pine Rest was an innovator on the mental side of rehabilitative health care, Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital was its equal on the physical side.

Mary Free Bed, which also was started by a group of women, put its emphasis on rehabilitating children suffering from cerebral palsy, polio, rheumatic fever, amputation and other debilitating conditions. The care and compassion with which both hospitals operated became a hallmark of West Michigan’s medical treatment.

By 1953, the institution had established itself as a regional center for juvenile rehabilitation services and officially changed its name to Mary Free Bed Guild Children’s Hospital and Orthopedic Center. The rest of the decade saw Mary Free Bed expand to provide patients with additional services such as music and speech therapy. Today, innovative rehabilitation techniques continue to define Mary Free Bed.

“There weren’t many places in the nation doing what Pine Rest was doing,” said Zwarensteyn. “And Mary Free Bed was a hub. People came here from all over to learn from them.”

Lending a hand
Another medical pioneer in Grand Rapids whose impact was worldwide is Dr. Alfred B. Swanson, an orthopedic surgeon, hand surgeon and scientist who is credited with inventing finger joint replacements.

Dr. Alfred B. Swanson, an orthopedic surgeon, hand surgeon and scientist, is credited with inventing
finger joint replacements.

In 1962, Swanson assembled a research department at Blodgett Hospital to test the use of silicone for small joint implants. Two years later, the first patient was operated on using the implants, and by 1969, the finger implant was approved and became available worldwide.

The incredibly complex procedure, which involved bone shaping, insertion of the implant and rebalancing of the surrounding joint tissues, offered relief to people suffering from severe arthritis.

Intellectual property
Do you appreciate paying less for prescription medicines? Thank Allegan-based Perrigo Co. for developing and marketing the generic version of so many name-brand pharmaceutical drugs.

Are you more confident about having to undergo heart surgery? Thank Grand Rapids-based DLP Inc. (now part of Medtronic DLP) for introducing medical products to protect the heart during bypass surgery and a stabilization system allowing surgeons to operate on a beating heart.

Did you require less recovery time from surgery than you expected? Thank Kalamazoo-based Stryker Corp. for developing a host of surgical tools that have made procedures more efficient and less invasive.

Making a name
All of these services, procedures and inventions helped put Grand Rapids and West Michigan on the national health care map.

But, quite possibly, it was the can-do attitude of the region’s medical providers that created these milestones.

“What distinguished Grand Rapids from other places is that we were able to offer some of the best ‘meat and potatoes’ medical care in the nation,” Zwarensteyn said. “That’s what our history is built on.”

He went on to say that out-patient surgery was pioneered here in the 1950s at Butterworth Hospital. Zwarensteyn didn’t specifically mention the area’s fiscally conservative Dutch heritage as the impetus for eliminating needless hospital stays, but then again he didn’t have to.

“After all, $20 or $30 a night was expensive.” GR

Tim Gortsema is the former managing editor of Grand Rapids Business Journal and a Grand Rapids Magazine contributing editor. 


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