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  • Writer's pictureChuck Monan

Whenever You Fall, Pick Up Something

Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might

⎯ Ecclesiastes 9:10

We were made by our Creator to work. Rather than seeing work as a punishment for sin, we should remember that the Lord charged Adam with the responsibility of tending the Garden: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” (Gen. 2:15). This was before sin entered into the world. While work would become more difficult and frustrating as a result of the Curse (Gen. 8:17-19), the fact remains that we honor God when we work hard at our job and give it our best.

Dr. Oswald Avery is an example of this ideal.

Avery was born in 1877 in Montreal and grew up in New York City the son of a Baptist minister. A short fragile man, he weighed at most 110 pounds in his life. Possessing numerous talents, he could’ve succeeded in just about anything. Luckily for the world, he was drawn to what he called “the true inwardness of research.”

Early in 1918 a new influenza virus originated in Haskell County, Kansas. Ordinarily it would’ve done its damage, and that would’ve been the end of it. But a war was on ⎯ World War I. The virus traveled east across the state to the huge army base, and from there to Europe. Later it began its sweep through North America, through Europe, South America, Asia and Africa, through isolated islands in the Pacific, through the entire world. The virus adapted, changed, mutatedÖ and exploded across the planet, killing with deadly accuracy.

Before this worldwide pandemic subsided in 1920 it killed between 50 and 100 million people worldwide. And it did not just kill the young and the old, as influenza typically does; half of the dead were men and women in the prime of life, in their twenties and thirties.

Scientists and authorities in the U.S. were desperate to find the cause of influenza. William Henry Welch, the single most powerful individual in the history of American medicine, asked Avery to go to work on it. In his book The Great Influenza, John M. Barry describes what was involved in this:

Avery’s own findings alone left too many unanswered questions for him to reach a conclusion, crisis or not.

From Avery came no reports of finding influenza’s cause, no phone calls or telegrams that he was sending cultures with which to infect horses and produce serum or vaccine.

He was pushing himself harder than he ever had at Devens ⎯ and he always pushed hard. He ate in the laboratory, ran dozens of experiments simultaneously, barely slept, bounced ideas by telephone off Rosenau and others. He bore into his experiments like a drill, breaking them apart and examining every fractured crack in the data for a clue. But if he pushed himself to work, he would not push himself toward a conclusion.

He was not convinced.

When Avery experimented, a colleague said, “His attitude had many similarities with the hunter in search of his prey. For the hunter, all the components ⎯ the rocks, the vegetation, the sky ⎯ are fraught with information and meanings that enable him to become part of the intimate world of his prey.” Avery had a hunter’s patience. He could lie in wait, for an hour, a day, a week, a month, a season. If the prey mattered enough, he could wait through an entire season and then another and then another. But he did not simply wait; he wasted not a single hour, he plotted, he observed, he learned. He learned his prey’s escape routes and closed them off; he found better and better vantage points; he bracketed the field through which the prey passed and kept tightening that field until, eventually, the prey had to pass through a noose. And he could lay traps: studying pneumococci by scratching it into the skin, for example, where the immune system could easily control the infection, but which still gave him the opportunity to experiment with the bacteria outside a test tube. He advised, “Whenever you fall, pick up something.” And he often said, “Disappointment is my daily bread. I thrive on it.”

Avery worked relentlessly. Endlessly. Methodically. Anonymously. Faithfully. For nearly three entire decades. In 1944, at age 66, he demonstrated that DNA carried genetic information. He had set out looking for a cure for pneumonia and influenza; he ended up opening the field of molecular biology. Millions of lives would be saved by the work of this man whose labor honored God.


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