Pearl Kenderick and Grace Eldering: The American Scientists Who Developed a Vaccine for Whooping Cough

Tragically, each year 160,000 children continue to die after contracting whooping cough in the developing world.

Our 15th installment of Heroes of Progress features Pearl Kendrick and Grace Eldering, two American scientists who created the first effective vaccine for the whooping cough. Thanks to their work, whooping cough has become preventable, and Eldering and Kendrick’s vaccine has been credited with saving over 15 million lives so far.

The whooping cough is an upper respiratory infection that typically afflicts infants. Although early symptoms are often quite mild, over time coughing bouts cause those infected to lose their breath, turn red, and vomit. At the end of a coughing bout, the child will often be desperately sucking in air, which results in a “whooping” noise. The disease, which is known as pertussis to scientists, after the bacteria Bordetella pertussis that causes it, can result in life-threatening complications such as pneumonia, bacterial infections, and dehydration.

At its height in the 1930s, whooping cough killed more American infants than polio, measles, tuberculosis, and all other childhood diseases combined. This is where Kendrick and Eldering enter our story.

Two Extraordinary Women

Pearl Kendrick was born in August 1890 in Wheaton, Illinois. When she was just three years old, she developed a case of whooping cough. Kendrick was lucky enough to survive the illness and went on to have a happy childhood. She received her BS in Liberal Arts from Syracuse University in 1914.

Kendrick initially began her career as a high-school science teacher, but after a short time, she started studying bacteriology at Columbia University, focusing on whooping cough. In 1917, she was recruited to work at the Michigan Department of Health. It would be here she would meet Grace Eldering.

Eldering was born in 1900, in Rancher, Montana. Like Kendrick, Eldering contracted and survived the whooping cough at a young age. Eldering studied Biology and English at the University of Montana and graduated in 1927.

Soon after her visit, Mrs. Roosevelt helped to find the funds that allowed Kendrick and Eldering to continue large-scale trials.

In 1928, Eldering moved to Michigan and began volunteering at the Department of Health’s Bureau of Laboratories. After six months of volunteering, Eldering was placed on the payroll. In 1932, she transferred to the lab Kendrick ran in Grand Rapids.

Kendrick and Eldering instantly bonded and began working together on a whooping cough vaccine. However, as their efforts coincided with the Great Depression, funding for their vaccine was virtually nonexistent. As a result, Kendrick and Eldering developed their vaccine primarily during their off hours. This arrangement worked for a few years but by 1936, the pair was in desperate need of additional funds to continue trials for their test vaccine.

In an attempt to raise funds, Kendrick invited the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, to their laboratory. To everyone’s surprise, Mrs. Roosevelt accepted their invitation and during one day, Mrs. Roosevelt spent over thirteen hours with Kendrick. Soon after her visit, Mrs. Roosevelt helped to find the funds that allowed Kendrick and Eldering to continue the large-scale trial that they had begun in 1934.

Meaningful Impact

Their trial eventually involved 5,800 children and the results were groundbreaking. The children who received the vaccine immediately demonstrated a strong immunity against the disease. In 1942, to reduce the discomfort for children receiving vaccines, Eldering and Kendrick combined three vaccines into a single shot. The use of the Diphtheria, Pertussis, and Tetanus (DPT) vaccine became routine throughout the United States in 1943. Thereafter, its use quickly spread across the world.

Both scientists received their PhDs from Johns Hopkins University; Kendrick in 1934 and Eldering in 1942.

Thanks to their work, more than 15 million lives have already been saved, and it is likely that their vaccine will continue to save millions more.

Later in life, Kendrick left the Michigan Department of Public Health to teach at the University of Michigan. She died in 1980. Once Kendrick left, Eldering succeeded her as the head of the department. Eldering retired in 1969 and died in 1988. In 1983, both women were inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame. 

Tragically, each year 160,000 children continue to die after contracting whooping cough in the developing world. Although this figure continues to fall, there is much to be done before whooping cough is completely eradicated.

However, thanks to Eldering and Kendrick’s work, more than 15 million lives have already been saved, and it is likely that their vaccine will continue to save millions more. It is, for this reason, Grace Eldering and Pearl Kendrick are our fifteenth Heroes of Progress.

This article is republished with permission from Human Progress. 

Further Reading

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