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    Every Creeping Thing: True Tales of Faintly Repulsive Wildlife: “Conniff is a splendid writer–fresh, clear, uncondescending, and with never a false step; one can’t resist quoting him.” (NY Times Book Review)

    The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff is “a swashbuckling romp” that “brilliantly evokes that just-before Darwin era” (BBC Focus) and “an enduring story bursting at the seams with intriguing, fantastical and disturbing anecdotes” (New Scientist). “This beautifully written book has the verve of an adventure story” (Wall St. Journal)

    Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time by Richard Conniff  is “Hilariously informative…This book will remind you why you always wanted to be a naturalist.” (Outside magazine) “Field naturalist Conniff’s animal adventures … are so amusing and full color that they burst right off the page …  a quick and intensely pleasurable read.” (Seed magazine) “Conniff’s poetic accounts of giraffes drifting past like sail boats, and his feeble attempts to educate Vervet monkeys on the wonders of tissue paper will leave your heart and sides aching.  An excellent read.” (BBC Focus magazine)

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Posts Tagged ‘Whooping cough’

The Unsung Heroes Who Ended a Deadly Plague

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 11, 2022

Grand Rapids, Michigan, shortly before the Depression. (Photo: Unknown)

by Richard Conniff/Smithsonian Magazine

Late November 1932, the weather cold and windy, two women set out at the end of their normal working day into the streets of Grand Rapids, Michigan. The Great Depression was entering its fourth year. Banks had shut down, and the city’s dominant furniture industry had collapsed.  Pearl Kendrick and Grace Eldering both biologists for a state laboratory, were working on their own time to visit sick children and determine if they were infected with a potentially deadly disease.  Many of the families lived in “pitiful” conditions,” they later recalled. “We listened to sad stories told by desperate fathers who could find no work. We collected specimens by the light of kerosene lamps, from whooping, vomiting, strangling children. We saw what the disease could do.”

It could seem at first like nothing all, a runny nose and a mild cough. A missed diagnosis is common even now: Just a cold, nothing to worry about. After a week or two, though, the coughing can begin to come in violent spasms, too fast for breathing, until the sharp, strangled bark breaks through of the child desperately gasping to get air down her throat. That whooping sound makes the diagnosis unmistakable. 

Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, means nothing to most parents in the developed world today.  But the helpless feeling of watching a baby in the agonizing grip of a prolonged coughing spasm is unforgettable.  “It’s awful, it’s awful. You wonder how they can survive the crisis,” says a modern researcher who has seen it. “I mean, they’re suffocating. They’re choking. They become completely blue. They cannot overcome the cough, and you have the impression that the child is dying in your hands.” It can go on like that for weeks, or months.

Until the mid-twentieth century, there was also nothing anyone could do to prevent the disease.  It was so contagious that one child with whooping cough was likely to infect half his classmates, and all his siblings at home.  In the 1930s, it killed 4000 Americans on average every year, most of them still infants.  Survivors could suffer permanent physical and cognitive damage.

All that changed because of Kendrick and Eldering, now largely forgotten. They’d been hired to conduct routine daily testing of medical and environmental samples at a state laboratory.  But whooping cough became their obsession. They worked on it late into the night, without funding at first, in what a reporter later described it as a “dumpy broken down stucco” building.  They benefited from the work of their own hand-picked research team, which was remarkably diverse for that era in race, gender, and even sexual orientation. They also enlisted the trust and enthusiasm of their community.  

Medical men with better credentials were deeply skeptical.  But where other researchers had failed repeatedly over the previous 30 years, Kendrick, Eldering, and their team succeeded in developing the first reliably effective whooping cough vaccine.  Childhood deaths from whooping cough soon plummeted in the United States, and then the world. (To continue reading, click here)

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