water to generic drugs
and from rehabilitative
care to joint
implants, West Michigan has
frequent health care pioneer.
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
“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.
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
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
“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
and then sent them around the world (to practice
medicine). It was unbelievably important.”
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
“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.