The Michigan women who created a vaccine for whooping cough, saving countless lives

6,000 children a year were dying from whooping cough

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – Two Michigan women created a vaccine that saved countless lives.

They were public health researchers who devoted their lives to saving children and to lifting up the people who helped them do it. Their work went on to serve as a model around the world.

Dr. Pearl Kendrick and Dr. Grace Eldering developed and tested what would become one of the safest and most effective vaccines for whooping cough.

They did it on their own time and with a shoestring budget. During the day they were responsible for the the Michigan Department of Health West Michigan Branch’s analyses of milk, water, other biological products and routine testing. They worked on the vaccine after hours because they loved the work.

Dr. Carolyn Shapiro-Shapin is a professor of history at Grand Valley State University. She’s done extensive research on both women and the vaccine they developed.

“Their work was for the children, and it was for making childhood safer,” Shapiro-Shapin said.

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At the time, whooping cough was killing 6,000 children a year in the United States and causing great suffering for many more.

Kendrick and Eldering created a better “cough plate” to go out and collect bacteria samples from children sick with whooping cough. They kept their car at the ready, day or night.

“They lived up on Bayberry, which is a rather large hill. And so they parked it nose down so they could roll into gear and roll on. Kendrick was known as being a fast driver,” Shapiro-Shapin said. “They would say, ‘We go around the back and up the stairs.’ Because they were going into the apartments of poor people.”

The Great Depression was in full swing.

“There was no money and so Kendrick and Eldering got money from school boards and local doctors and the local health department. And they’ll say, ‘We’ll give you $300 but that’s it because we don’t have more.’”

When their research was in jeopardy, Kendrick reached out to Eleanor Roosevelt.

“Eleanor Roosevelt visits the lab. There’s a lot of fanfare. There’s a great picture in the newspaper of them. And then she, through the Works Progress Administration, helps to fund some folks to work with the laboratory, ”Shapiro-Shapin said.

They tested their vaccine in preschool students in Grand Rapids with full parental consent. That was unusual for the time, when many studies were conducted on orphans.

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“To make sure every vaccine lot was safe, they injected it into each other’s arms,” Shapiro-Shapin said. “They wanted to make sure that no children, no child was ever hurt.”

The vaccine was proven effective and widely distributed. Both women had extensive, impressive careers. But their legacy lives on in the work of others too.

“These are people who create opportunities for themselves and create opportunities for others,” Shapiro-Shapin said. “They believed in the development of their people. They then supported the education of the people in their lab. The people I talked to all said, ‘They wanted us to learn all of the different processes. As much as I wanted to learn, they would let me learn. They would encourage me to learn.’”

There’s a statue in Grand Rapids depicting two healthy children with Kendrick, Eldering and their colleague Loney Clinton Gordon.

“These are people who had the respect of those in public health. I think if they saw themselves in bronze in Downtown Grand Rapids they would be appalled and would have said, ‘We should set up a vaccine clinic here.’ That is what they would value. They would value a vaccine clinic,” Shapiro-Shapin said.

After Kendrick died in 1980, a tribute written to her said: “A life saved by prevention cannot even be identified. Who are the men and women living today who would be dead from whooping cough had it not been for Pearl Kendrick’s vaccine?”

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