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Whooping Cough Killed 6,000 Kids a Year Before These Ex-Teachers Created a Vaccine

April 16, 2019 in History

By Natalie Zarrelli

After a long day in the laboratory in 1932, Pearl Kendrick and Grace Eldering walked out into the chilly Michigan evening with specially prepared petri dishes, called cough plates, in tow. The two scientists were on a mission to collect bacteria in the wild: one by one, they visited families ravaged by whooping cough, the deadliest childhood disease of their time. By the dim light of kerosene lamps they asked sick children to cough onto each plate, dimpling the agar gel with tiny specks of the bacteria Bordetella pertussis.

As they collected their research samples from “whooping, vomiting, strangling children,” Kendrick and Eldering, both former school teachers who lived together in Grand Rapids, “listened to sad stories told by desperate fathers who could find no work,” Eldering later recalled. “We learned about the disease and the Depression at the same time.”

Using cultures from the suffering children that they “saved and studied in every possible way,” the pair created the first effective vaccine for whooping cough after years of toiling in their lab, growing and identifying pertussis strains from cough plates. Developed at a time when scientific funding was so scarce that lab mice were considered a luxury, the vaccine would go on to prevent thousands of children each year from succumbing to the disease.

In the 1940s, Kendrick and Eldering’s lab also developed the vaccine that most people receive today, called DTP, that protects against diphtheria and tetanus as well as whooping cough, alongside an African-American female chemist named Loney Gordon. This became a staple early-life vaccine, multiplying the survival rate of children in the United States as it spread across the country.

Back when Eldering and Kendrick began working on their vaccine in the 1930s, an estimated 6,000 kids in the United States were dying from whooping cough, or pertussis, each year—more than from diphtheria, scarlet fever, tuberculosis or polio. Once infected, victims make a characteristic “whoop” coughing sound as their bodies fight the bacteria. In a vicious cycle, the cough spreads the contagion to others, and is so powerful that it can induce shaken baby syndrome. Babies who get it have a high chance of dying.

“It’s difficult to explain just how desperate people were for a [whooping cough] vaccine at this time,” says historian Carolyn Shapiro-Shapin, who has extensively researched Kendrick and Eldering.

Dr. Pearl Kendrick, seen here in 1942, was a …read more


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