Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

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In my last three blog posts, I discussed how Sidney Houghton (1872–1950), a British interior designer and interior architect, met and befriended Henry Ford during World War I and became part of the Fords’ inner circle. We know this through correspondence, designs, and records held in the Benson Ford Research Center at The Henry Ford. The single document that details the relationship best is a brochure—more a portfolio of projects—published by Houghton in the early 1930s to promote his design firm.


Page with text and photo of statue of ship and figures in water
Cover of Sidney Houghton Brochure. / THF121214

From Houghton’s reference images in the brochure, we can document many commissions that are lost as well as provide background for some that survive. This post centers on Houghton’s later work for the Fords, and my evaluation of why the relationship ended.

The Dearborn Country Club


Black-and-white photo of large Tudor-style two-story (?) building
Dearborn Country Club in 1925. / THF135797

Two-story Tudor building with circular driveway
Dearborn Country Club in 1927. /THF135798

According to Ford historian Ford Bryan in his book, Friends, Families & Forays: Scenes from the Life and Times of Henry Ford, the Dearborn Country Club was created for executives at the Ford Motor Company. By the middle of the 1920s, Ford’s operations were centered in Dearborn, with nearly all the company’s upper echelon working from the Ford Engineering Laboratory or the nearby Ford Rouge Plant. According to Ford Bryan, the idea came from Henry and Clara Ford to provide Dearborn with the same amenities as elite suburbs such as the Grosse Pointes or the northern suburbs. They also wanted their associates and friends to have the best that money could buy. The project was an incentive for Ford executives to remain in Dearborn, but proved to be unprofitable for the company. Further, when Henry Ford tried to impose his wishes against smoking and drinking, the membership essentially ignored him. Because of this, the Fords rarely visited the Club.

Architect Albert Kahn, who famously designed the Rouge Plant, was hired to design the clubhouse, seen above. The building was finished in the fall of 1925 and was designed in the “Old English” or Tudor style, popular in England in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Aerial shot of group of people in suits and formal gowns in a ballroom
Formal Dance at the Dearborn Country Club, 1931. / THF99871

Man in chef's outfit and hat stands behind long buffet table filled with plates and displays of food
Dearborn Country Club Chef at Banquet Table, 1931. / THF99875

Men in tuxedos and white gloves pose for a photo, some standing and some sitting
Light's Golden Jubilee Ushers at the Dearborn Country Club, October 21, 1929. / THF294674

We know through documents that Sidney Houghton worked on the interiors. What we have in the way of documentation is a furnishings plan, but little else. Period photos, such as those above, show the elaborate beamed ceiling in the ballroom designed by Albert Kahn, and the elegant lighting and window treatments, likely provided by Houghton.

Henry Ford Hospital and Clara Ford Nurses Home


Large five (?) story brick building, with three people in nurses' outfits on the lawn in front
Henry Ford Hospital and Clara Ford Nurses Home, 1931. / THF127760

Entrance to brick building, with walkway and several people wearing nurses' uniforms outside
Clara Ford Nurses Home, 1931. / THF127754

Group of women in nurses' uniforms stand on the steps of a building inscribed "Clara Ford Nurses Home"
Nurses in front of Clara Ford Nurses Home, 1926. / THF117484

One of Henry Ford’s great humanitarian efforts was in founding Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. It was created in 1915 and in 1917 was turned over to the federal government during World War I for military use. By the middle of the 1920s, the hospital was considered the major medical center in Detroit. In 1925, Clara Ford organized the Henry Ford Hospital School of Nursing, and she funded the building housing it, the Clara Ford Nurses Home, on the hospital campus.

Paneled room with fireplace, couches, chairs, and other furniture
Living Room inside Clara Ford Nurses Home, 1925. / THF127777

Only one photograph of the original interior survives, showing the living room on the first floor. This is absolutely the work of Sidney Houghton, done in what he would call the Elizabethan or Tudor style. The walls are covered with heavy, inlaid panels and the furniture is heavily proportioned, with carved turnings. The wood of choice during this period was oak, which Houghton described as the “Age of Oak.” The upholstered furniture is likewise heavy and large in scale.

Page with text and two images of room interiors
Houghton Brochure: A Tudor Interior. / THF121227b

Page with line drawings of furniture with textual key underneath
Houghton Brochure, Furniture from the "Age of Oak." / THF121217a

The End of the Relationship


By 1925, Houghton’s commissions were at or nearing completion. After this date, there is an abrupt end to the correspondence between Houghton and the Fords. The only subsequent communications are a telegram from 1938, congratulating the Fords on their 50th wedding anniversary, and a letter dating to 1941, thanking Henry Ford II for his work on supplying aid for Britain during the second World War. While we have no documentation on how the relationship ended, we do have documentation of one artifact that may shed light on this period. In 1925, Houghton gave the Fords a sterling silver model galleon or ship. Perhaps this is a reference to Houghton’s love of sailing. It appears on the cover of the Houghton brochure at the top of this post.

Was this a peace offering from Houghton to the Fords? Or was it a token of generosity from Houghton, a great navigator, to the Fords? We will never know, but it is interesting to contemplate the implications of this extraordinary gift.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my journey through an unknown aspect of the Fords’ life. Researching and writing about Sidney Houghton has been a pleasure.


Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Sophia Kloc for editorial preparation assistance with this post.

design, healthcare, Detroit, Michigan, Dearborn, Clara Ford, Henry Ford, Sidney Houghton, furnishings, decorative arts, by Charles Sable

Woman in black-and-white printed outfit sits in field with hand to her ear
Lavender Suarez. / Photo by Jenn Morse

Lavender Suarez has made music as an experimental improviser for over a dozen years as C. Lavender and studied the philosophy of “deep listening” with composer Pauline Oliveros, which helped her understand the greater impact of sound in our daily lives. But it was seeing fellow artists and friends experience burnout from touring and stress that inspired her to launch her own sound healing practice in 2014.

“Many artists are uninsured, and I wanted to help them recognize the importance of acknowledging and tending to their health,” she said. “It felt like a natural progression to go into sound healing after many years of being a musician and studying psychology and art therapy in college.”

Suarez defines sound healing as “the therapeutic application of sound frequencies to the body and mind of a person with the intention of bringing them into a state of harmony and health.” Suarez received her certification as a sound healer from Jonathan Goldman, the leader of the Sound Healers Association. She recently published the book Transcendent Waves: How Listening Shapes Our Creative Lives (2020, Anthology Editions), which showcases how listening can help us tap into our creative practices. She also has presented sound healing workshops at institutions like New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art and Washington, D.C.’s Hirshhorn Museum.

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healthcare, by Mike Rubin, The Henry Ford Magazine, women's history, music


Museum exhibit with many cases and displays

The Mathematica exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. / Photo by KMS Photography

When Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation reopened in July 2020 after months of shutdown because of COVID-19 restrictions, museumgoers were excited to be back on the floor. Many of them were super excited to get back to one of their favorite exhibitions, Mathematica—a favorite because it’s so hands-on.

And therein lay the problem, said Jake Hildebrandt, historic operating machinery specialist at The Henry Ford. As COVID-19 spread, the hands-on interactivity of Mathematica caused it to remain closed. Mixing a little bit of ingenuity, technology, and lots of problem-solving skills, Hildebrandt, along with master craftsman Brian McLean, ensured the exhibition could remain interactive yet hands-free and open to the public.

Metal and wood railing with a white sensor mounted on it, with text reading "WAVE TO START"
Mathematica’s Moebius Band was modified by staff from The Henry Ford to start via a hand wave. / Photo by Jillian Ferraiuolo

The push-start buttons on the Moebius Band and Celestial Mechanics installations, for example, are now initiated with a wave of the hand—no touch necessary. And the 27-button panel of the Multiplication Machine has been covered with Plexiglas for safety and new software installed so random math problems run on the cube throughout the day for visitor education and enjoyment.

Lightbulbs arranged in a cube shape, some lit and some not, behind a wood and metal railing with a large sign in the foreground containing text
A newly-added note under the Plexiglas installed on the Multiplication Machine in Mathematica reads “This machine has been temporarily modified for a touch-free experience / It now multiplies random numbers on its own.” The styling of the note is intended to match the original design of Charles and Ray Eames. / Photo by Jillian Ferraiuolo

“Projects like these, DIY challenges that have high criteria, limited time and budget, are my favorite kinds of projects,” said Hildebrandt. All the alterations to Mathematica are easily reversible, he added, and when you head to the museum to see them, you’ll notice the respectful attention given to the exhibition’s classic Eames styling.


This post was adapted from an article first published in the January–May 2021 issue of The Henry Ford Magazine.

#Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, The Henry Ford Magazine, making, Henry Ford Museum, healthcare, design, COVID 19 impact, collections care

Catch a glimpse of Brian Yazzie’s left arm, and you’ll see cranberries, sumac, and sunflowers near his wrist, blue Hopi corn on his forearm and Navajo squash holding court at his elbow. An illustrated sleeve of more produce and wild game are up next for the right.

Man in short-sleeved blue button-down shirt with embroidery of flowers and vegetables along one side stands in a desert landscape with cacti and mountains
Chef Brian Yazzie. / Photo courtesy Brian Yazzie

The inspiration behind the ever-growing tattooed bounty of Native American produce started at age 7 for Yazzie, when the aromatics of Navajo blue corn mush or the sound of a knife tapping on a cutting board drew him into the kitchen to help cook for his large family. Raised by a single mother in Dennehotso, Arizona, located on the northeast part of the Navajo Nation, Yazzie remembers eating traditional and freshly foraged foods like wild spinach and pine nuts but also commodity foods like government cheese, canned chicken, and powdered milk.

“That was what we grew up on,” said Yazzie. “But for me, as long as we had food, we were OK.”

He discovered his passion for cooking but at the time was equally lured into gang life, spending his teenage years in and out of detention centers and county jails and skipping classes, sometimes to just hide out in the home economics classroom.

“I was blessed never to end up in prison or passing on,” said Yazzie, whose sisters would call to tell him to come home because they missed his food. “That was their way of checking up on me. Cooking always kept me out of trouble; it’s what saved my life.”

It’s also what prompted Yazzie and his wife, Danielle Polk, to settle in the Twin Cities in 2013. They wanted opportunity but also to stay connected to Native communities. “The Twin Cities has one of the top five Native urban populations in the U.S.,” said Yazzie, who works closely with the Dakota and Ojibwe tribes there while continuing to help the Dennehotso reservation and other tribal communities around the United States.

In 2014, Yazzie enrolled at Saint Paul College, where his first assignment as a culinary student was to perfect any dish from around the world. “I wanted to make something beyond frybread, but I realized at least 50% of ingredients inside Navajo tacos are native to the Americas,” said Yazzie.

Toppings like summer squash, peppers, and eggplant reminded him of French ratatouille, and he found his dish. More importantly, he discovered the larger influence of Indigenous foods and his passion for reviving, celebrating, and recognizing their ancestral origins.

Seed packet with yellow bands with text at top and bottom and large image of green bell pepper
Chef Yazzie found inspiration in eggplant, summer squash, and peppers, like the one on this circa 1951 seed packet from our collection, during his first assignment as a culinary student. / THF294269

He and Polk started a Native American Club on campus and connected with local chef/author/educator Sean Sherman, CEO of The Sioux Chef, to cater one of their events. “Seventy-five percent of the appetizers he served were foreign to me,” said Yazzie, who went on to work for Sherman before he and Polk started their own catering company, Intertribal Foodways. “We wanted to bring awareness to what’s been overlooked for so long.”

Along with showcasing Native ingredients and techniques, that’s also meant addressing health issues like diabetes that have long affected Indigenous communities. “We try to implement food as medicine,” said Yazzie, now executive chef of the Gatherings Cafe inside the Minneapolis American Indian Center. “Especially during this pandemic, we have to keep our elders strong and safe; a lot of them hold lost languages and teachings.”

After COVID-19 hit, Yazzie and his team started making 200 healthy meals a day for elders in the Twin Cities, established a Dennehotso COVID-19 relief fund, and regularly sent healthy food and supplies to the Apache County community. He works with local farmers and foragers to bring Native ingredients into his food whenever he can, even if it means taking baby steps with dishes like unhealthy frybread (created by Yazzie’s Navajo ancestors while they were in internment camps at Fort Sumner, New Mexico, in the 1860s). “It’s still on the table across North America as a survival staple for tribal communities, especially during the pandemic, so I had to take a step back and listen to my elders, but we’re getting there,” said Yazzie, who lightens up the wheat-heavy bread with amaranth flour or wild rice flour.

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healthcare, COVID 19 impact, recipes, food insecurity, restaurants, food, The Henry Ford Magazine, by Liz Grossman

When you think of museums—particularly history museums—it seems to make sense that they are inevitably all about the past. From an artifact collecting standpoint, there is an element of truth to this—most anything a museum can collect already exists and is already sliding into the past. But, putting aside ideas about the swift passage of time, it is important to understand that many museums—including The Henry Ford—do engage in what is known as “contemporary collecting.”

Contemporary collecting seeks to document history as it is happening, and relates to significant current events, trends, or cultural moments. When this collecting is done in the heat of the moment, especially when the conditions being documented are ever-changing or incredibly brief, it is known as “rapid response” collecting. Rapid response collecting relies on a well-tuned sense of what events will have greater historical significance—even after they are over—and requires a particularly proactive approach to gathering information and objects.

Page with text and four small images: coffin with covid molecule; tiki torches and Confederate flag; child clutching at chain-link fence; polar bear floating on small ice floe
One example of contemporary collecting occurs every four years, when The Henry Ford collects material related to the presidential election cycle. This postcard, created by Sea Dog Press, is from our 2020 collecting initiative. More examples from that initiative can be found here. / THF622210

In early 2020, the world was overtaken by the COVID-19 virus. It soon became clear—as industries ground to a halt, scores of workers were sent home, and international travel all but ceased—that the pandemic would become a major moment in history. Upon this realization, the curatorial staff of The Henry Ford went to work, developing a rapid response plan to document the still-unfolding pandemic. When developing this plan, the curatorial staff was keen to ensure that these collecting efforts not only captured a vivid perspective on the pandemic but also built upon the uniqueness of our collections. They determined to focus on three broad themes: innovation on a nationally significant level, grassroots resourcefulness on the part of individuals, and ingenuity demonstrated by businesses and entrepreneurs. Within each of these categories, curators identified topics that had already begun to emerge, and noted potential objects or types of objects that could be acquired.

With the plan complete, it was presented to The Henry Ford’s Collections Committee—the chartered committee responsible for reviewing and approving all proposed additions to the collections of The Henry Ford. The majority of the committee’s business consists of taking a final vote as to whether or not an item should be accessioned—the term for officially adding an item to the collection. However, some acquisitions are discussed with the group before curators begin making final preparations to acquire them; this gives the committee an opportunity to weigh in on proposed acquisitions that may be more complex, or that would require a greater outlay of the institution’s time or resources. The committee also approves all collecting initiatives, as they typically involve special effort, or result in a larger number of acquisitions; having the committee’s endorsement ensures that the collecting can be adventurous and creative but within clear parameters. Once approved by the committee, the COVID-19 Collecting Initiative was put into place, and curators began gathering information and materials.

Black fabric face mask with pattern of white, black, and red beads around border
Pleated fabric face mask with geometric pattern in blue, white, yellow, and red
Our COVID-19 collecting initiative included outreach to people with items of interest, such as Brighid "Birdie" Pulskamp, a Diné craftswoman who created a beaded facemask featuring a traditional Navajo wedding basket design, as well as fabric masks that she sent to the Navajo Nation to help combat the spread of the virus on reservations. /
THF186023, THF186021

While many acquisitions for the collection are actively sought out by our staff, others end up finding us. On September 9, 2020, Curator of Transportation Matt Anderson returned to Collections Committee with word that Ford Motor Company—with whom we have a long and fruitful relationship, particularly in regard to collecting—had reached out to him regarding a prototype COVID-19 testing van that they had developed. Ford Motor Company’s COVID-19 response—particularly their shift from manufacturing automobiles to producing equipment and supplies to aid in the fight against COVID-19—had already been a point of interest on our radar, and had been specifically identified in the collecting initiative.

After hearing the details of the acquisition, the Collections Committee gave Matt a “consensus to proceed” with the acquisition. Consensuses to proceed are given after an initial discussion of a potential acquisition, but before said acquisition is presented for final accessioning; they allow curators to proceed with making any necessary arrangements—like shipping—without overcommitting the institution, should the circumstances of an acquisition change.

Tall red van with text on front and side and American flag on side
Ford Transit Van, Modified for Use as a COVID-19 Mobile Testing Facility, 2020. / THF188109

In working with Ford Motor Company to arrange the donation of the COVID-19 testing van, Matt had the opportunity to discuss other COVID-19–related material that Ford had produced. Of particular interest were the ventilators produced at Ford’s Rawsonville plant. Ford indicated that they would be willing to offer us not one but three of those ventilators: a standard one, one signed by the Rawsonville workers, and one signed by President Donald Trump during his visit to the plant. Would The Henry Ford be interested in all three?

GIF that cycles through three images of white boxy equipment with knobs and dials on front--one plain, one covered in signatures, and one with one large signature on top
pNeuton Model A-E Pneumatic Ventilators produced by Ford Motor Company, 2020. / THF185924, THF185919, THF186031

In considering objects, The Henry Ford also considers the stories they represent, and these three ventilators were no different. While one alone would have served to document Ford’s manufacturing response, collecting all three would allow us to tell a more multi-layered story. The blank ventilator is just like all the others that rolled off Ford’s assembly line; the one signed by the Rawsonville employees documents and celebrates the people who made Ford’s manufacturing feat possible; and the one bearing President Trump’s signature captures his historic visit to the plant. While we are always cautious of over-duplication in our collection, in this instance, while the objects themselves were similar, the elements of the story were distinct, and all were important to document via our collection.

In addition to the COVID testing van and ventilators, Ford Motor Company also offered numerous pieces of PPE (personal protective equipment) they had prototyped or produced: ventilator connectors, masks, face shields, a gown, and a door pull. Matt accepted all of these items and began preparing them for presentation to Collections Committee, crafting a justification for their addition for the collection and writing a brief summary of their historical significance. On November 11, 2020, the Collections Committee gave their final seal of approval, voting to approve the addition of the van, ventilators, and assorted PPE to The Henry Ford’s collection. With that, the process of rapid collecting—at least in the case of the Ford COVID-19 response acquisitions—had come full circle.

As it turned out, though, just as the pandemic continued on, so too did our collecting opportunities. Ford Motor Company reached out again in the new year with more PPE—this time, though, created for a very unique event: the 2021 inauguration of President Joseph Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris in Washington, D.C. Ford had produced 15,000 single-use masks—in two designs, printed by Hatteras, Inc., in Plymouth, Michigan—to provide to those attending the ceremony. Matt Anderson gratefully accepted the 10 masks Ford offered us, noting their significance, as their production not only furthered Ford’s efforts to combat the spread of the virus, but also demonstrated Ford’s commitment to, in the words of the company’s president and CEO, Jim Farley, “a tradition so fundamental to our democracy.” Just like the testing van and other COVID-19 materials donated by Ford, these masks were presented to the Collections Committee for final approval, which was readily granted, and they became an official part of the collections of The Henry Ford.

White pleated cloth or paper face mask with Ford logo in upper right and blue circular logo in upper left
This face mask, produced for the 2021 inauguration, represents a unique overlap of two contemporary collecting initiatives undertaken by The Henry Ford: documenting the 2020–2021 presidential election cycle and documenting the COVID-19 pandemic. / THF186524

Thanks to the quick thinking and eager work of the curatorial department and the efficient processes of the Collections Committee, The Henry Ford was able to start documenting the COVID-19 pandemic as it was happening, and—with the help of a well-established relationship with Ford Motor Company—quickly tick an important item (and then some) off our collecting wish list. The thoughtful work of our staff and the relationships they build with outside organizations prove time and again to be key elements of building our collections, whether that be through collecting the past or the present.


Rachel Yerke is Curatorial Assistant at The Henry Ford.

philanthropy, presidents, Michigan, cars, manufacturing, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, Ford Motor Company, healthcare, COVID 19 impact, by Rachel Yerke

Our new limited-engagement exhibit, Collecting Mobility: New Objects, New Stories, opening to the public October 23, 2021, takes you behind the scenes at The Henry Ford to show you how we continue to grow our vast collection of more than 26 million artifacts. One key question the exhibit asks is why we collect the items we collect. To get more insight on the artifacts on exhibit and future trends that may impact our collecting, we reached out to several of our partners. In this post from that series, our friends at Ford Motor Company, donors of the COVID-19 mobile testing van in the exhibit, tackle questions about their efforts to serve the community during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Similar to the World War II “Arsenal of Democracy” effort, Ford Motor Company joined “Arsenal of Health” efforts through its Project Apollo to fight COVID-19 and serve the community. What Ford practices (or values) helped the company shift gears quickly to ramp up Project Apollo?

For 118 years and counting, Ford has had a culture of innovation and service, which enabled the team to respond quickly and nimbly to the personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Red van with large American flag painted on side and text on side and front
This Ford Transit van, on display in Collecting Mobility in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation until January 2, 2022, is one of four converted into mobile test units in spring 2020, early in America's COVID-19 pandemic, by Ford Motor Company and Troy Design & Manufacturing. The vehicles collected genetic samples in the field and transported them to labs for testing. Free tests were given to first responders, nursing home residents, and people at substance abuse centers and community shelters in Michigan. / THF188109

How fast did Project Apollo ramp up? How many products did you make?

The earliest seeds of Project Apollo began in mid-March 2020, when concerns around the safety of healthcare workers faced with a shortage of PPE were first raised. Project Apollo has produced face shields, multiple types of masks, gowns, powered air purifying respirators (PAPRs), ventilators, air filtration kits, and mobile testing/vaccination units.

What were some of the unexpected improvisations that happened turning car parts into useful medical products?

Working with 3M, the team was able to use off-the-shelf parts like vehicle ventilator fans and power tool batteries for a PAPR, or airbag material for washable gowns.

Light pink plastic gown
Level 1 isolation gowns protect wearers from contaminants in minimal-risk situations. This gown is made from the same fabric used in automobile airbags. Ford set a goal to produce 1.3 million gowns during the COVID-19 pandemic—each one washable up to 50 times. / THF186847

What is a new way of working that came out of Project Apollo that you think will influence manufacturing innovation in the next 10 years?

The team being very clear on a compelling purpose and mission—there was a common mission that was crystal-clear, very ambitious: to build 50,000 ventilators, 20 million face shields, 32,000 PAPRs, 100 million face masks… and more. On a normal day, this would feel like a Herculean task for each individual item—but to do all of it at the same time was a stretch goal. Ford had a mindset of aim high, fail fast, learn, pivot, adjust—but stay focused on that goal, that mission.

Piece of white machinery with black handles and dials and knobs on the front; covered in people's signatures in various colors
Early in America's COVID-19 pandemic, Ford Motor Company converted a portion of its Rawsonville Components Plant to produce more than 51,000 medical ventilators. These critical machines helped patients with the most serious COVID-19 infections to breathe. This unit, the last one off the Rawsonville assembly line, was signed by some of the 1,100 Ford employees involved in the effort. / THF185919

Teams were empowered. In many cases, the teams set their own goals—it often wasn’t a matter of Ford leadership asking, employees stepped up across the company with ideas on how Ford could help. And everyone played a role in eliminating constraints that were getting in the way of the team mission to serve the greater good.


Cynthia Jones is General Manager of Innovation Experiences at The Henry Ford. Ted Ryan is Ford Motor Company Archives and Heritage Brand Manager and Jim Baumbick is Vice President, Enterprise Product Line Management, Strategy, and Planning, at Ford Motor Company. Ford Motor Company is a global company based in Dearborn, Michigan, that is committed to helping build a better world, where every person is free to move and pursue their dreams. See Collecting Mobility for yourself in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation from October 23, 2021, through January 2, 2022.

Ford workers, healthcare, manufacturing, COVID 19 impact, Ford Motor Company, by Jim Baumbick, by Ted Ryan, by Cynthia Jones

Rectangular badge with images of man's face, American flag, buildings, small logos, and text
Identification badge worn by Gerry Gomes while on assignment at Ground Zero in September 2001. / THF185942


This year marks the 20th anniversary of events that have changed the course of American history: the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, commonly known as “9/11.” In their online FAQs, the 9/11 Memorial & Museum explains briefly what happened that day:

“9/11” is shorthand for four coordinated terrorist attacks carried out by al-Qaeda, an Islamist extremist group, that occurred on the morning of September 11, 2001.

Nineteen terrorists from al-Qaeda hijacked four commercial airplanes, deliberately crashing two of the planes into the upper floors of the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center complex and a third plane into the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. The Twin Towers ultimately collapsed because of the damage sustained from the impacts and the resulting fires. After learning about the other attacks, passengers on the fourth hijacked plane, Flight 93, fought back, and the plane was crashed into an empty field in western Pennsylvania about 20 minutes by air from Washington, D.C.

The attacks killed 2,977 people from 93 nations: 2,753 people were killed in New York; 184 people were killed at the Pentagon; and 40 people were killed on Flight 93.

The attacks shocked, saddened, scared, and angered Americans. In their aftermath, the United States instituted new air safety regulations; embarked on the longest-running war in our history, in Afghanistan (from which we just exited last month); and created a new federal department, the Department of Homeland Security. It’s safe to say that most Americans who were adults in 2001 remember where they were and what they were doing when they first learned of the attacks, and most Americans have felt their effects in some way.

Newspaper front page with headline "America's Darkest Day," text, and images of wreckage and airplane near a smoking building
The front page of the September 12, 2001, issue of the Detroit Free Press referred to the terrorist attacks of the previous day as “America’s Darkest Day.” / THF625308

One person this is particularly true of is Gerald “Gerry” Gomes, one of The Henry Ford’s dedicated volunteers. Gerry donated a number of the artifacts seen in this post, related to his work responding to 9/11.

Around 1990, Gerry became involved with the National Disaster Medical System (NDMS), which, NDMS explains, is “a federally coordinated health care system and partnership of the Departments of Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Defense, and Veterans Affairs.” Its mission is “to supplement our nation’s public health and medical resources…. NDMS mobilizes resources through specialized teams that provide human and veterinary healthcare, mortuary assistance, patient movement coordination, and definitive care during times of need.” Those affiliated with NDMS have regular jobs and lives, but must be packed and ready to deploy at a moment’s notice when they are called up to duty. In more than 20 years of NDMS service, Gerry assisted with many disasters (such as devastating Florida hurricanes) and key events (such as presidential inaugurations and Olympics games) at both the state and federal levels.

Within NDMS, Gerry worked on a Disaster Medical Assistance Team, or DMAT. The DMATs are made up of doctors, nurses, EMTs, firemen, paramedics, and other staff who support them. Their role is to provide medical care during public health emergencies and “National Security Special Events,” which might include presidential inaugurations, visits by significant international dignitaries, or international conferences and important gatherings. When deployed, Gerry’s team could process up to 200 casualties per hour. His role on the team was in communications—keeping the team in contact with command. He was given the role as they needed someone who had field experience and could interact effectively with people at the scene of an emergency.

Red, white, and blue round fabric patch with shield containing cross and bird in center; also contains text
"National Disaster Medical System" patch worn by Gerry Gomes while on assignment at Ground Zero in September 2001. / THF185941

Gerry’s day-to-day job was in communications at Ford Motor Company. On September 11, 2001, his boss called and told him that planes had hit the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, and that he thought Gerry would be activated by the NDMS. And indeed he was. It wasn’t long before Gerry was boarding an airplane at Detroit Metro airport, with military planes and helicopters flying overhead. Despite an order issued by the Federal Aviation Administration less than an hour after the first plane hit the World Trade Center that required all civilian flights then in the air to land and barred any further departures, Gerry’s flight departed under the auspices of the federal government, escorted by multiple other planes all the way to New York’s LaGuardia airport.

In the first of three missions there, Gerry’s DMAT team was deployed to the World Trade Center site, known as Ground Zero—or, to the responders who worked there after the towers collapsed, “The Pile.” Their initial mission objective was to serve as a casualty response team, triaging survivors, so they set up three field hospitals near the remains of the World Trade Center Marriott Hotel, between the Twin Towers. However, it quickly became clear that there were few survivors. The team then pivoted to providing medical care for the other responders “working The Pile.” Gerry said many of those they treated would have their shoes burned off, as the smoldering remains of the towers were still so hot.

Red pick-up truck with badge on door and text "POLICE" on front of hood
After the September 11 attacks, many individuals, organizations, and corporations were eager to provide assistance in whatever way they could to responders at Ground Zero. Because many of the New York-New Jersey Port Authority’s vehicles were destroyed during 9/11, Ford Motor Company loaned them 15 pre-production prototypes—including this one—of the Ranger FX4, a heavy-duty, 4-wheel drive truck with special off-road equipment. / THF1368

The team’s first mission lasted two weeks. After that, they had a four-week mission recovering the remains of victims. Their third and final mission was to close down the site and make sure all the equipment was retrieved.

The work was mentally taxing. Every day, everyone who was working at The Pile had to undergo a psychological evaluation. Gerry’s team was also scheduled to work overnights—from midnight to noon—which added an additional strain. Gerry told the story of bonding with a firefighter as fellow “coffeehounds,” sharing a mutual love of coffee. Gerry later found out that firefighter had previously been stationed near Ground Zero, and that many of those he had been stationed with had been killed in the attack. The firefighter had not talked since that time—but he would talk to Gerry. He later told Gerry he had begun to realize it was not his fault he was not killed along with his colleagues that day.

When asked how he dealt with the constant emotional toll, Gerry responded, “You learn to close out the ambient. You’re there functioning in your job the best you can.” The team is not just one person, Gerry emphasized, but instead everyone working together. “That’s how we achieve more,” he added. His DMAT was made up of “A-type personalities, people at the top of their field with nothing to prove,” who worked together to get the job done despite the challenges. In fact, the team’s motto was “Semper Gumby,” indicating they were always flexible and would do what it takes.

GIF cycling through images of large crowd of people, many with American flags or candles, and speakers on a stage
As Gerry and so many others worked at Ground Zero, communities across the United States found ways to mourn and come together. These photographs are from the “Peace and Unity Candlelight Vigil” held in front of Henry Ford Museum on September 19, 2001. / Digital Collections

There was also worry from the families of the responders at The Pile—Gerry and his team felt very safe there, but Gerry noted that “families don’t know that.” Gerry’s son, in the U.S. Navy, would call, along with his commanding officer, to try to get information on what was going on—but Gerry was not allowed to speak about his work at the time. He could not even tell anyone where he was staying—but now can say that the team stayed at the Waldorf Astoria New York.

Though Gerry worked on a series of challenging and complicated projects for the NDMS over decades, he noted that the World Trade Center was “the most terrible time.” He also added that such work is “a thankless job and sometimes the people in the group thank you”—as Gerry’s team was honored by the Michigan Senate when they returned.

Group of people, mostly in hard hats and khaki clothing, many with respirators, pose in front of a pile of rubble and construction equipment
Gerry’s team at Ground Zero, pictured with the remains of the Marriott behind them. Gerry is wearing the yellow rain jacket—the “yellow canary,” as he put it. / THF625013

Gerry also received thanks from an unexpected source during his Ground Zero deployment. On a coffeebreak in the “Green Tarp Inn,” the tent where meals were provided for the responders at the site, he met a young woman who was volunteering to feed staff. She asked if she could sit with the group, told them she was Canadian, and asked them questions about their assignment. Each day, she would join them for coffee. Gerry added: “The only problem was I did not know that she was a singer/songwriter. The last day of my assignment, Alanis gave us a hug and thanked us for just sitting there and talking with her. She asked if she could sign our hats. When I got home, one of my daughters saw the signature of Alanis Morrisette on the hard hat and asked, ‘Did you meet her?’ I said, ‘Yes, we had coffee together every morning.’ Well, my daughter began to educate me on her.”

White hard hat with text, decals, and handwriting on it
White hard hat with text, decals, and handwriting on it
Two views of the hard hat that Gerry Gomes wore during his deployment at Ground Zero. Beyond Alanis Morrisette’s signature, you can see decals on the hat. “Semper Gumby” was the team’s motto, indicating their flexibility to do what it takes to get the job done. The American flag includes the phrase “United We Stand,” the motto of workers at Ground Zero. The “I Love New York” decal was “our way to support the people not at Ground Zero,” while police and firefighter stickers were a “thank you” from officers stationed at Ground Zero that Gerry’s team supported. / THF188516,
THF188517

Gerry is now retired both from Ford Motor Company and from the NDMS, but we are lucky to have had him as a volunteer at The Henry Ford since 2018, helping out first at Edison Illuminating Company’s Station A in Greenfield Village and the model trains in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, and later with our major car shows, Motor Muster and Old Car Festival. We are grateful for his volunteer work for us—as well as for his work at Ground Zero, on behalf of all Americans, 20 years ago.

To see more artifacts related to 9/11, visit our Digital Collections—or dig even deeper with the stories and collection of New York’s 9/11 Memorial and Museum.


Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Gerry Gomes for sharing his fascinating story and answering many questions.

Ford workers, communication, healthcare, by Ellice Engdahl

On what would have been Larry Kramer's 86th birthday, we look at the history of the iconic Silence = Death poster and the pioneering ACT UP organization—the political action group that Kramer catalyzed. Four decades into the AIDS crisis, and during this year's Pride Month celebrations, The Henry Ford recognizes the tireless advocates who have fought and continue to fight, refusing to stay silent, for equitable treatment for those in the LGBTQ+ community.

On July 3, 1981, the New York Times published an article that would send shockwaves through the LGBTQ+ community across the country. Headlined “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals,” the article, which appeared not on the first page, but on page A20, reported the death of eight individuals, and that the cause of the outbreak was unknown. For LGBTQ+ individuals living in the affected areas, the article was more a confirmation of their fears than new information. And for many heterosexual people, it sparked trepidation and deepened discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community. Other smaller publications had published articles in the months preceding July 1981, and Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, from the U.S. Center for Disease Control (now known as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), documented early cases of the epidemic in June. In the gay community, friends and loved ones were getting sick and many were dying. The alarm bell had been rung.

Black poster with pink triangle in center and text "SILENCE = DEATH" at bottom
The Silence = Death Collective designed this poster prior to the formation of the ACT UP organization, but transferred ownership to ACT UP in 1987. / THF179775

Silence = Death


The Silence = Death poster has come to symbolize the early fight against the AIDS epidemic. It was borne of deep grief and an unrelenting desire for action. One evening in late 1985, after the loss of his partner from AIDS in November 1984, Avram Finkelstein met with Jorge Socarras and Oliver Johnston in a New York City diner to catch up. Although the AIDS epidemic was a constant, tumultuous undercurrent in the gay community in the mid-1980s, the topic was often coded or avoided. That night, Finkelstein recalls, AIDS was all the men discussed, which he found “exhilarating after so many years of secrecy.” They decided to form a collective, each agreeing to bring one additional person to their next meeting. Chris Lione, Charles Kreloff, and Brian Howard joined. These six men met regularly to discuss the epidemic’s impact on their lives—and to process, rage, mourn, and, eventually, strategize. Finkelstein illustrates these meetings in his book After Silence: A History of AIDS through Its Images: “There were animated conversations, always, and there was often hilarity. We were almost never mean, but we frequently fought. There was shouting, there was fist pounding, and occasionally tears…. Fear may have been the canvas for our conversations. But anger was definitely the paint.”

These conversations turned to action. Each of the men had an artistic background—the group was comprised of art directors, graphic designers, and a musician. They decided to create a political poster, hoping to inspire action from the community’s fear. According to Finkelstein, “the poster needed to simultaneously address two distinctly different audiences, with a bifurcated goal: to stimulate political organizing in the lesbian and gay community, and to simultaneously imply to anyone outside the community that we were already fully mobilized.” The group spent six months designing the poster—debating everything from the background color to the text before deploying the poster all over Manhattan by March of 1987.

The poster’s central graphic element is a pink triangle. It references and reclaims the pink triangle patches on concentration camp uniforms that homosexual men were forced to wear by the Nazi regime during World War II (lesbian women were given a black triangle). The pink triangles subjected the men to added brutality. The poster’s triangle is inverted, however, from the one used during the Holocaust. This was initially a mistake. Chris Lione had recently been to the Dachau concentration camp and recalled that the pink triangle he saw on exhibit pointed upward. However, the collective embraced the accident once it was discovered, reasoning that the inverted triangle was “superimposing an activist stance by borrowing the ‘power’ intonations of the upwards triangle in New Age spirituality.” The expansive black background created a meditative negative space that further emphasized the bright pink triangle and the white text below.

The tagline for the poster—“SILENCE = DEATH”—was quickly developed. It also soon became the name of the men’s group: the Silence = Death Collective.  The equation references the deafening silence of the public and government-at-large—the New York Times didn’t give the AIDS crisis front-page coverage until 1983; President Ronald Reagan’s administration made light of the epidemic in its early years (the administration’s press secretary jokingly referred to the epidemic as the “gay plague” in 1982); and President Reagan didn’t address the AIDS epidemic publicly until September of 1985. The tagline also targeted the LGBTQ+ community, whose uncomfortable silence came at ultimate risk. Without discussion, education, and action about the AIDS crisis, many more people would die. By the end of 1987, over 47,000 people had already died of AIDS. Silence—quite literally—equaled death.

Poster with simple yellow human figures with hands over eyes, ears, and mouth, respectively, with blue bands containing text at top and bottom of poster
Artist and activist Keith Haring designed this poster, titled “IGNORANCE = FEAR, SILENCE = DEATH Fight AIDS ACT UP,” in 1989 for the ACT UP organization. It utilizes the “Silence = Death” tagline and the inverted pink triangle symbol initially created by the Silence=Death Collective.  / THF179776

The Formation of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power)


At almost the same time that the Silence = Death Collective’s poster began appearing around Manhattan, playwright and activist Larry Kramer gave a legendary lecture at New York’s Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center on March 10, 1987. Kramer famously began this speech by telling the crowd that half of them would be dead within the year (due to the AIDS epidemic). He repeatedly asked the crowd “What are you going to do about it!?!” Kramer’s rage and urgency pushed the crowd towards actionable steps to combat the AIDS crisis. Within days, a group met that would become the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power—or ACT UP. Around 300 people attended that first meeting, including some of the members of the Silence = Death Collective.

ACT UP quickly mobilized and became the political action group that many in the LGBTQ+ community—including the Silence = Death Collective—had envisioned.  ACT UP was (and still is) “committed to direct action to end the AIDS crisis.” On March 24, 1987, just two weeks after Larry Kramer’s lecture, the group held its first “action” when it protested pharmaceutical price-gouging of AIDS medication on Wall Street. Kramer had published an op-ed in the New York Times the day before, titled “The FDA’s Callous Response to AIDS,” which helped contextualize ACT UP’s protest in the media. ACT UP and its many chapters, subcommittees, and affinity groups kept pressure on the government for its inaction in the AIDS epidemic by frequently staging creative acts of civil disobedience and nonviolent protest.

“We had designed Silence = Death. ACT UP was about to create it,” Finkelstein wrote. The Silence = Death Collective gave the rights for the poster to ACT UP and it became a fundraiser for the organization. When this transition occurred, a few changes were made to the poster, including the correction of some minor errors (the “Food and Drug Administration” had been mistakenly referred to as the “Federal Drug Administration,” for example) and the addition of the “© 1987 AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power” in the bottom righthand corner.

Over the last four decades, AIDS has taken the lives of men, women, and children, without regard to sexual orientation or race. However, the LGBTQ+ community has suffered the bulk of misinformation and discrimination related to the disease and done the difficult work to push direct action to end the AIDS crisis. The work of activists like the Silence = Death Collective, the members of ACT UP, and many others made treatment available to more people and curbed the spread of the disease. ACT UP broadened its mission to the eradication of AIDS at the global level and remains an active organization.


Katherine White is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.

design, art, healthcare, posters, by Katherine White

The unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic that started a year ago—and that we are still living through—is an extraordinarily significant moment in our history. It connects our nation’s past with its present and future—revealing who we were before, who we are today, and who we will become in the future.

As this pandemic began to unfold last year, museums quickly stepped forward to collect—or lay out plans to collect—evidence of it, in many different ways. The majority of these collecting initiatives were local and community-based. Curators at The Henry Ford also developed a plan describing our approach to collecting the COVID-19 pandemic. Like all our collecting plans, it reflects who we are and what we represent as an institution. This begins with our mission statement: The Henry Ford provides unique educational experiences based on authentic objects, stories, and lives from America’s traditions of ingenuity, resourcefulness, and innovation. Our purpose is to inspire people to learn from these traditions to help shape a better future.

Using the filter of the mission statement, The Henry Ford’s approach to collecting the COVID-19 pandemic includes 3D objects, photographs, and archival materials that reflect how we are being innovative, how we are being resourceful, and how entrepreneurs are using their ingenuity to both address people’s needs and remain sustainable. In keeping with the scope of our collections, items must also have national significance. Even if they are local or regional, they should align with broader patterns and national trends.

Currently, we are actively bringing items into the collection that we have saved in our basements over the past year (because of COVID-19 safety protocols), as well as collecting ongoing trends (like vaccine-related items). Here are just a few examples of our collecting to date.

Poster showing two green chairs with dotted lines denoting six feet between them; also contains text
Yellow "smiley face" emoji; also contains text
Masking and social distancing quickly became new habits, as seen in these signs from Henry Ford Health System. (Future acquisitions.)

Black face mask with red, white, and black geometric pattern in beads around edge
This beaded facemask, created by Diné craftswoman Brighid “Birdie” Pulskamp, features a traditional Navajo Wedding Basket design. / THF186023

Maroon-colored sign with text "Curbside Pickup: Please do not leave returned library items on this cart."
Many businesses and services adopted curbside pickup. This sign from the Northville [Michigan] District Library marked where patrons could pick up their online book requests without entering the building. (Future acquisition.)

Book cover with image of room containing desk with computer screen with multiple boxes containing silhouettes; also contains text
A parody of the classic Goodnight Moon, Good Morning Zoom was created to help kids make sense of the changes in their world brought on by the pandemic. (Future acquisition.)

Wooden cut-out in the shape of a roll of toilet paper; contains text
This wooden ornament references the shortage of toilet paper that occurred in the pandemic’s earliest days, making it a highly sought-after commodity. (Future acquisition.)

Flyer with images of Santa, a reindeer in a scarf, and other holiday items, with text
Holiday traditions took on new twists, such as this drive-thru Santa event in Bay City, Michigan. (Future acquisition.)

Beige facemask with dark blue trim and images of dreidels, menorahs, and jelly doughnuts, along with text
A facemask can be found for every holiday and occasion. (2020.104.2)

Large-headed figurine of man in gray suit with glasses, next to box containing photo of man's head and text
Throughout the pandemic, Dr. Anthony Fauci has been one of the most prominent medical voices updating the public on the fight against the virus. As early as April 2020—when the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame released this tribute—he was already viewed as a hero by many. (Future acquisition.)

Rear view of red van with large back window; various text on vehicle and large American flag on visible side
Ford and subsidiary Troy Design & Manufacturing Company (TDM) converted Ford Transit vans into mobile COVID-19 testing units. Starting in April 2020, they took tests to health care workers and first responders—people who didn’t have to time to travel to a lab. Each van could test up to 100 people a day, and results were returned within 24–36 hours. Within a few months, the mobile testing program was extended to nursing homes, substance abuse centers, and community shelters. (2020.124.1)

Black-and-white equipment with dials, switches, and gauges, covered in signatures in various colors
Early in the pandemic, hospitals depended on scarce ventilators to treat patients with the most serious infections. Ford Motor Company employees built more than 51,000 ventilators at the Rawsonville Components Plant between April and August 2020. This unit, the last one off the assembly line, was signed by some of the 1,100 people involved in the effort. / THF185919

White face mask with blue presidential insignia in one top corner and blue oval "Ford" logo in the other
Health worries added to security concerns at the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on January 20, 2021. Ford produced 15,000 single-use face masks and donated them to ceremony attendees. Employees at Hatteras, Inc., who printed inauguration logos on the masks, worked around the clock to get them shipped to Washington and inspected by the Secret Service in time. (2021.19.6)

Clear plastic rectangle with rounded corners, topped with blue band patterned with white text "Built Ford Proud"
Ford subsidiary TDM manufactured more than five million face shields. Elastic, to hold the shield securely on the wearer’s head, was in short supply. TDM instead used flexible automobile weather stripping, pinned to the shield with automotive fasteners. / THF185929

White surgical face mask with subtle "Ford" oval logo in upper right
Disposable face masks, made at Ford’s Van Dyke Transmission Plant, were distributed free of charge to underprivileged communities, schools, food banks, and military veterans. The automaker set a goal to produce 100 million masks through 2021. / THF185913

Nurse with hands clasped in a prayer position, head bowed, eyes closed, on a red background with white halo-like lines behind her; also contains text
Portrait of woman with dark hair in green scrubs wearing blue face mask marked with yellow and red "Superman" symbolic S
Poster with mottled green, white, and blue background, featuring text shaped like a fist reading "We Got This"
Produced through the Amplifier Foundation, these posters acknowledge the heroic efforts of healthcare workers, and offer encouragement in the midst of upheaval. /
THF621827, THF621829, THF621843

We continue to work through additional donations offered to us by the public; for more information on how to contribute to this collection, visit The Henry Ford - COVID-19 Collections. You can also see more pandemic-related artifacts in our Digital Collections, and read additional stories related to the many impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on our blog


Donna Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. Rachel Yerke is Curatorial Assistant at The Henry Ford.

manufacturing, home life, healthcare, Ford Motor Company, by Rachel Yerke, by Donna R. Braden, COVID 19 impact

thf185489

Stone Cold Systems Ice-Less Vaccine Refrigerator, 2018 / THF185488

People might think that curators look at objects in the same way. In fact, every curator at The Henry Ford has a different background and range of expertise, and we interpret things through a varied set of lenses.

Take, for example, an artifact in The Henry Ford’s collection that is related to a top-of-mind subject right now—vaccines. We were asked to offer two interpretations of the Stone Cold Systems Ice-less Vaccine Refrigerator, a 2018 IDSA (Industrial Design Society of America) winner (you can find out more about The Henry Ford’s relationship with IDSA here). Here are our thoughts.

Katherine White, Associate Curator, Digital Content:

At its best, design solves problems. Good designers are problem solvers, creatively working through a problem’s constraints towards a competent solution. When I first became familiar with this artifact, the Stone Cold Systems Ice-Less Vaccine Refrigerator, I was taken with its functionality and potential for social impact, all wrapped in a sleek case. This vaccine refrigerator, built within a siren-red carrying cage, aims to improve vaccine distribution to hard-to-reach locations.

The invention of vaccines has had an incredibly positive impact on global health. The World Health Organization estimates that 2–3 million deaths globally are avoided due to immunizations each year. But, perhaps surprisingly, vaccines can be fragile. They often need to be kept at a stable temperature (usually cold) without exposure to light or significant environmental fluctuation. The efficacy of the vaccine could be compromised should these factors not be met. The journey from the scientist’s laboratory to the arm of someone in New York City is a long one—and an even longer journey should that someone live in a rural area or developing country.

Page with illustrations and text
Stone Cold Systems Ice-Less Vaccine Refrigerator Quick Start Guide / THF621440

This vaccine refrigerator aims to increase access to immunizations, regardless of where one calls home. It utilizes a more reliable iceless thermoelectric cooling technology and is rechargeable by multiple methods, including solar energy, so can be used anywhere. Although developed prior to the global COVID-19 pandemic, its future in fighting the pandemic is clear.

The late design critic Ralph Caplan is noted as saying that “design is a process of making things right.” Creation of a product which facilitates access to effective immunizations for all people—even far from a modern hospital building—is certainly one way to make things right.

Donna R. Braden, Curator of Public Life:

This vaccine refrigerator immediately brought to mind the recent research I’ve been doing on Dr. Alonson Bingley Howard, a 19th-century country doctor whose office is now located in Greenfield Village. At the time Dr. Howard was practicing medicine (1855–83), people didn’t understand the nature of germs and contagion, or that diseases were transmitted this way. As a result, infectious diseases—like cholera, tetanus, yellow fever (or malaria), measles, dysentery, scrofula, and typhoid—were the leading causes of death at the time. These often reached epidemic proportions and people constantly feared that they, or members of their families, might contract them. But, without knowledge of what caused and spread disease, or modern pharmaceuticals (including vaccines), safe drinking water, and improved sanitation facilities, 19th-century country doctors constantly fought an uphill battle.

How relevant this is, I thought, to our lives today—to the COVID-19 pandemic; to people fearing they or members of their family might contract the virus; to our current knowledge of germs and our understanding that washing our hands, cleaning surfaces, and wearing masks reduces their spread; and to our hopes for combatting this disease through the application of successful vaccines.

White cooler with red x-shaped frame, open door, and accessories packed inside
Stone Cold Systems Ice-Less Vaccine Refrigerator, alternate view / THF185489

What about those deadly infectious diseases of the 19th century that Dr. Howard was attempting to treat, like cholera, yellow fever, and typhoid? One might assume they have disappeared—but they haven’t. Many of them still exist, especially in developing countries that have limited-to-no access to modern medical treatments, sanitation facilities, and vaccines. This refrigerator was, in fact, designed to hold vaccines where there is no electricity—in these very countries.


Katherine White is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford. Donna Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.

design, COVID 19 impact, by Donna R. Braden, by Katherine White, healthcare