Lives of the fellows

John Everett Gordon

b.18 June 1890 d.27 June 1983
BSc Chicago(1916) PhD(1921) MD(1925) Hon AM Harvard(1943) FRCP*(1943)

John Gordon was professor of preventive medicine and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health from 1938 to 1958, and subsequently emeritus professor. He was also senior lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology until the time of his death.

He was born in Austin, Minnesota, the son of Fanny and Newton Gordon. His father was a journalist, and his mother was the daughter of a farmer. The family later moved to Barron, Wisconsin, where his father became a newspaper editor, a fact that affected his son’s approach to manuscripts all his life. John was educated at the local High School, the University of Chicago, and the Presbyterian Hospital, Chicago. On graduation in 1916 he enlisted as a first lieutenant in the Sanitary Corps, assigned to work on meningitis and influenza, returning to the United States at the end of hostilities. He took his PhD at the University of Chicago in 1921, and for a short time he taught bacteriology in Chicago and at the University of Western Ontario. This experience was a formative influence for it kindled a lifelong interest in infectious diseases and, in particular, the interplay of nutrition with infection.

In 1925 he gained the MD at Rush Medical College, Chicago, and became assistant superintendent of the Municipal Contagious Diseases Hospital in Chicago, and medical director of the Herman Kiefer Hospital, Detroit. These posts, however, did not satisfy his thirst for a deeper knowledge and understanding of the aetiology and causation of disease and, after serving for a few years as epidemiologist to the City of Detroit, in 1933 he accepted an appointment as field director for the Rockefeller Foundation, departing with his family to Romania to direct a study which aimed to determine why scarlet fever persisted in virulent forms in that part of the world. It was while he was in Romania that he was invited to become Charles Wilder professor of preventive medicine and epidemiology at Harvard, a post he accepted in 1938, but he had hardly begun his new career when he was asked to organize and direct a field hospital unit in Britain.

This was during the second world war, and he left America in 1940 with John R Mote of the American Red Cross, arrived in England in the middle of the battle for Britain, and established the American Red Cross-Harvard Field Hospital unit at Salisbury. The unit had a threefold purpose: hospital care for the patient, clinical and epidemiological research, and field studies of communicable diseases under wartime conditions. This was the beginning of a six-year tour of duty, most of it as chief of preventive medicine for the US Army in Europe. The end of the war found him in the Pacific area. For his wartime services he received the Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit, the Order of the British Empire, the Croix de Guerre avec Palme, the Liberty Cross of Norway, and the medal of the US Typhus Commission.

On cessation of hostilities, John Gordon returned to America with strong new confirmations of the relevance of communicable disease epidemiology, such as the triumphant control of typhus in Europe by application of the new DDT to everyone crossing the Rhine river from east to west. Back at Harvard, he was elected head of the department of epidemiology in the graduate school and was soon at work on several applications of epidemiological concepts and techniques to non-communicable diseases; to diabetes, congenital deformities, mental disease, traumatic accidental injuries, etc.

He also foresaw the need for epidemiologists to be concerned with the problems of overpopulation, and joined with two of his former students, John Wyon and Carl Taylor, in starting one of the first major projects in this field — the Khanna project in India. From the seven years of field work, followed by ten years of data analysis and reporting of findings, about thirty-five papers emerged and, in 1971, a book describing the Khanna Study. A follow-up study of the same villages was incorporated in the findings in the book, and John Gordon dedicated much hard work to these publications, although it was only one task among many.

At Harvard he invariably gave the introductory course in epidemiology himself, illustrating one of his principles by waving in the air a shellalegh club he had picked up in Ireland, and announcing that the job of the epidemiologist is to spot the most cogent relationship and hit it on the head. He ran a year-long weekly seminar known as Epidemiology 15, for ten students only, and by the end of the year all the participants had designed their own field projects.

He wrote sections of the medical history of the United States forces in the second world war, wrote two articles a year for the American Journal of Medical Sciences, edited the American Public Health Association’s Control of Communicable Diseases, regularly every three years contributed the chapter on the then original concept of ‘Weanling Diarrhoea’ to the WHO monograph on Interactions of nutrition and infection, and numerous other publications. His interest in nutrition had deep roots and a paper with Harding Le Riche in 1950 was the first to deal with the application of the epidemiological method to nutrition.

In 1959 he was invited to the Institute of Nutrition of Central America and Panama in Guatemala, to assist in the design and interpretation of field studies of the interaction of nutrition and diarrhoeal disease. He and his wife Miriam then visited Guatemala for long stays each year for the next ten years, where they were both loved and he became a legend. John also undertook long-term studies of intestinal diseases in the Arctic, and consulted on studies of the effect of the atom bomb on Hiroshima - all in addition to the Khanna Study.

In his later years at Harvard, John Gordon developed a partial hearing loss but did not allow this to disable him. On the contrary, he turned it to his advantage when presiding over the then curriculum committee and other bodies; it has been said that motions were carried by votes of John Gordon for, and six against: a perfect example of the interaction of host and environment about which he spoke so frequently.

Following his retirement from Harvard, John accepted a senior lectureship in the department of nutrition and food sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which he held, and worked at until a few months before his death. While at the Institute, at the age of 79, he was asked to investigate the problem of aflatoxin produced by Aspergillus flavus, a potentially serious problem in the foodstuffs of tropical developing countries. He eagerly accepted and went to Thailand, criss-crossing the country in a jeep at the hottest time of the year, wearing out both Thai and American colleagues who were his juniors by many decades. Out of this came an experimental design for examining the relationship between the aflatoxin content of foods, Reye’s syndrome in children, and carcinoma of the liver in adults. At about this time he was invited to become a member of the NAS/NRC expert committee on the history of medicine and he participated actively in its meetings. The major scholarly task of his last five years was the writing of a book on nutritional epidemiology in collaboration with Nevin S Scrimshaw. Despite his eagerness to complete this book he developed great patience with Nevin Scrimshaw’s overcommitments and extensive foreign travel which made it impossible for him to do his share. He left behind drafts of all the chapters, most of them revised for the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh time. The most striking feature of the last years of his life was his continued enthusiasm for new editorial tasks, new intellectual challenges, and any opportunity to train additional students in the field of epidemiology. Even in rain and snow, he drove the twelve miles from Wellesley to the Institute to be at his desk, editing and keeping in contact with students. It was only at the age of 83 that he finally consented to go to Ipswich for summers, but it did not interrupt his editing. During his last year, his hours at the Institute became a little shorter and if the weather was too severe his wife was sometimes able to dissuade him from driving the twelve miles from Wellesley, but there was no loss of enthusiasm or willingness to take on new tasks.

John Gordon had a great influence on American and Pan-American epidemiology over a period of almost fifty years. He was clear headed, thinking far into the future, and a tyrant for knowing the facts of the present. He loved to clarify principles, savouring the details of each case. He always searched for a more holistic view of his cases; he bewildered biologists with his demands for behavioural facts, and behavioural scientists with his vigorous and deeply practical biological mind. Although he did not appear to follow any specific religious doctrine, he lived a life which any aspiring saint might envy — not by what he said, but by what he did. He could be sharp and acerbic at times, but he had a genius for handling people.

He married Miriam Louise, daughter of Charles Herman Lapham, a merchant, in 1921 and they had a son and a daughter. Much of his strength came from their close relationship and her constant care of him. His deep distress and concern when she became ill showed that his concept of synergism was not just an epidemiological one. A highlight of his final years was his arrival at the Faculty Club of the Institute for what he expected to be a simple dinner for his 90th birthday, but which — with Miriam’s conspiratorial assistance -turned out to be a celebration with friends and colleagues not only from the Boston area, but also from elsewhere in the United States and abroad. It was a joyous occasion, with John Gordon in full command of his intellectual powers and sense of humour. The following day he was back at work as usual.

John Gordon’s breadth of experience and intuitive sense for what was important brought simplifying insight to complex issues. He was without doubt one of the most experienced epidemiologists of the century.

NS Scrimshaw
Sir Gordon Wolstenholme
Valérie Luniewska

* Elected under the special bye-law which provides for the election to the fellowship of "Persons holding a medical qualification, but not Members of the College, who have distinguished themselves in the practice of medicine, or in the pursuit of Medical or General Science or Literature.."

[Memorial Minute, Harvard University, Feb 1984; J. Tropical Pediatrics, 1969, 15, 71-75]

(Volume VII, page 218)

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