Public health stories: GVSU experts, students team with Grand Rapids Public Museum to showcase groundbreaking work

Grand Valley faculty and students have teamed up with the Grand Rapids Public Museum on a presentation to highlight the history of groundbreaking public health work in Grand Rapids.

"GR Stories - Public Health History in Grand Rapids," is a free program for the community to learn more about the pioneering medical research conducted in Grand Rapids as well as the transformational health policies instituted in the area, serving as models worldwide, organizers said.

This program will feature presentations by students Hannah Krebs, Callie Dzurisin and Coltrane Bodbyl-Mast based on their research using the GRPM Collections and other local archives. In addition, a panel on public health history will be moderated by history faculty members Carolyn Shapiro-Shapin, Abigail Gautreau and Matthew Daley.

The event is at 6 p.m. March 29 at the Grand Rapids Public Museum’s Meijer Theater. Registration is required at

The students will present on topics addressing the groundbreaking women scientists behind the development of the whooping cough vaccine in Grand Rapids in the 1930s, the role of Grand Rapids scientists in the development of cough plate usage for the vaccine and the temperance movement in Grand Rapids and its interdenominational and public-health orientations.

A person smiles in a posed photo
Carolyn Shapiro-Shapin, professor of history, specializes in the history of medicine and health.

Shapiro-Shapin, whose research centers on the development of the whooping cough vaccine by Pearl Kendrick and Grace Eldering and contemporary and subsequent developments in public health initiatives in the city and state, was invited to contribute expertise to museum leaders' successful application for a Michigan Humanities Council grant. Shapiro-Shapin said that grant crucially helped support this high-impact learning opportunity for the students.

For about six months, the students have done in-depth research on the public health activities in Grand Rapids, Shapiro-Shapin said. The work with GRPM has supported both the museum's goal of presenting the history of Grand Rapids and GVSU's commitment to experiential learning.

"This event showcases our student interns’ creative research and highlights the benefits of the high-impact learning opportunities that result from collaboration between GVSU and community partners like the GRPM," Shapiro-Shapin said. "Our hope is that those who attend the program will come to better understand the rich tradition of public health work in Grand Rapids."

Andrea Melvin, the museum's collections curator, said: “A key aspect of this GR Stories program is to inspire community members to consider the importance of preserving history.”  

The students involved with the project said they gained valuable insight and training

  • Hannah Krebs, a history major, researched the scientists behind the whooping cough vaccine and discovered that despite the barriers to entry in the scientific community the women faced at that time, they "put their heads down and did the work." The sheer volume of work it took to do the trials, including writing records by hand and nurses making multiple visits a year to the children, also struck Krebs, who finds the history of science and medicine fascinating. "This work solidified my desire to work in public history. I love working with the physical representations of history, such as seeing the pages of writing from people and the artifacts," Krebs said. "One of the main ways this project helped me was to strengthen my researching ability."

  • Coltrane Bodbyl-Mast, a history major, studied the temperance movement in Grand Rapids. Much of the research involved looking through old newspapers and minutes from the Women's Christian Temperance Union. Bodbyl-Mast was expecting the research to reveal a lot about "sin and damnation," when it came to the temperance movement but was struck by how clearly alcohol was also viewed as a public health threat. That theme, and language consistent with public health concerns, was clear in archival materials viewed from the 1840s to 1910s, Bodbyl-Mast said. "There were a lot of editorials about propositions on what to do to lower alcohol consumption and a lot of discussion about legislation," Bodbyl-Mast said. "They were attempting to utilize the state to shut down alcohol consumption as not only a spiritual ill but also a social and physical ill."

  • Callie Dzurisin, a biomedical sciences major who has long had plans to attend medical school, said the work done researching the evolution of the cough plate for this vaccine and other laboratory work has piqued an interest in also pursuing a Master of Public Health degree. Dzurisin said the research showed that the cough plate, which is a diagnostic technique for growing bacteria where patients deposit a sample on the plate rather than experience the more familiar nose or throat swab, was proven effective by the scientists through perseverance. That technique was not popular in labs then. "They were willing to work at it and try different things to get it to be as effective as it was," said Dzurisin, who noted cough plates are still in use today for conditions such as cystic fibrosis. "When we think of creating a vaccine, you think of complicated big machinery and these huge trials, and they were able to do it with a cough plate right in the city of Grand Rapids."