Cudmore: Gloversville native became important public health researcher

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As scientists work on creating vaccines and other treatments for the COVID-19 virus, one of the sets of shoulders they stand on belonged to a Gloversville native. 

Albert Hewett Coons grew up on Gloversville’s First Avenue, the son of Albert Selmser Coons, who was president of a glove company, and his wife, Marion Hewett Coons. 

The younger Coons graduated from Gloversville High School in 1929 (one of 12 students presented laurel “G” pins at graduation) and followed the career path of his grandfather, Eugene Coons, who was a physician.

Albert Coons earned his undergraduate degree at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts in 1933 and his medical degree, cum laude, from Harvard in 1937.

Coons interned at Massachusetts General Hospital and was studying pathology in Berlin, Germany, in 1939 when he was appointed to the faculty of Harvard Medical School in Boston.

In Germany Coons conceived the idea of attaching a brightly glowing fluorescent molecule to antibodies which would make it possible to see the illuminated antibodies with a microscope.  It was called a tracer technique. 

“In strange cities, visitors have many hours alone,” wrote Coons in a memoir. German scientists were skeptical.

Germany went to war and Coons returned to the United States and pursued his medical research on the tracer technique.  He was inspired by Harvard immunologist Hans Zinsser.

The only time Coons interrupted his research was from 1942 through 1945 when he served in the Pacific with the U.S. Army during World War II.  He was a major and chief laboratory officer with the 105th General U.S. Army Hospital, which saw action in New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and the Philippines.

Back in Boston after the war Coons worked with organic chemist Louis Fieser studying disease.

At the end of 1947 Coons married Phyllis Watts, who grew up in Newton, Massachusetts, and who had studied at Radcliffe. They had five children, four girls and one boy, and made their home in Brookline.

Phyllis Watts Coons wrote for the Boston Globe.  During World War II she was one of the reporters covering the deadly Coconut Grove night club fire.  She also filed stories about education, crime, politics and was a drama critic for the Globe.

Many scientists studied at Albert Coons’s Harvard laboratory and also took his research in new directions. 

In 1953 Coons was appointed lifetime career investigator for the American Heart Association.  He was at this time working on the disease rheumatic fever and studying the way in which the blood feeds the body tissues.

Coons’s father died in 1960. The researcher returned to Gloversville in 1961 to speak at a Tuberculosis Association dinner on the importance of pure research.  He said, “Research of any serious kind must be a supported permissive endeavor.  One cannot ask Columbus to discover America, the existence of which no one even guesses.”

Coons’s mother passed away in 1965.  The next year Coons’s research was covered in an article in Life magazine, “A Practical Payoff Makes Its Appearance in the Form of a Telltale Glow.” 

According to Gloversville’s Leader Republican the article “pictorially describes Dr. Coons’ technique for tracing antibodies with molecules of fluorescent dye, identifying them and thus allowing diagnosis for proper treatment by the medical profession.”

Coons was described in a Wikipedia profile as a modest, affable and quiet person who was devoted to his work.  Ironically for a researcher of heart ailments, Coons died of coronary artery disease and congestive heart failure in 1978 at age 66.  He was buried in Cambridge.
His wife Phyllis continued writing for the Boston Glove and died at age 84 in 2002.

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