Loney Clinton Gordon
Loney Clinton Gordon made a remarkable impact on children by her determination to succeed at her second-choice career as a lab technician. Gordon left her Arkansas birthplace as a young girl to move with her family to Michigan. She earned a bachelor’s degree in home economics and chemistry from what was then called Michigan State College in 1939. However, her hopes to work as a dietitian were thwarted when she was told white male chefs would not want to take orders from a black female dietitian.
In the meantime, two women doctors, Pearl Kendrick and Grace Eldering, were searching for a laboratory technician for their research at the Western Michigan Laboratories, later known as Kent Community Hospital, located in Grand Rapids. During the day, the two doctors studied the purity of milk and water. After hours in a separate laboratory, Gordon helped the two doctors work on a bacterium known as Bordetella pertussis, the cause of an infectious disease known as whooping cough. Even though at that time there were vaccines for the illness, they were ineffective. Coincidentally, the highest death tolls were occurring in Michigan. The three women embarked on what became a public-health crusade to search for a cure. Fueled by her determination to succeed at this career and her sympathy for the great number of sick and dying children throughout the world, Gordon discovered her life’s mission; to help find the culture with sufficient virulence to make an efficient vaccine against whooping cough. Gordon soon identified sheep blood as the key to the process of incubating the culture in petri dishes in the laboratory.
Gordon’s enthusiasm, persistence, and intuition led her to find an organism, which was several times stronger than any previously known. According to the Grand Rapids Press, “Gordon’s vigilant research was a key component in developing a successful vaccine.” Because of the strain isolated by Gordon, Drs. Kendrick and Eldering performed a control experiment that subsequently evolved into a more protective vaccine than any in existence at the time.
Dr. Pearl Kendrick + Grace Eldering
n 1893, when Pearl Kendrick was a three-year-old growing up in Wheaton, Illinois, she was struck with a case of whooping cough – known as pertussis to scientists, named after the bacteria (Bordetella pertussis) that causes it. Four and one-half decades later she would have her revenge, developing the first effective vaccine to combat the ravenous disease.
For Grace Eldering, the childhood memories that shaped her life were filled with pain. She was beset with whooping cough when she was just five years old, and she never forgot the persistent, painful coughing. She went on to study biology and chemistry, and spent her career searching for ways to ease the suffering of others. She began her career in Lansing, Michigan. Unable to find a paying position fresh out of college, she simply volunteered her time in the laboratory for the first six months. Her service was rewarded and she was given a paid position in Grand Rapids, where she joined forces with Pearl Kendrick. The duo would revolutionize the treatment of whooping cough, known as pertussis to scientists since that is the name of the bacteria that causes it.
Measles, scarlet fever, tuberculosis, diphtheria, polio… These are all dreadful diseases, but none claimed as many young lives in the United States in the1920s as whooping cough. Whooping cough is an upper respiratory infection, often beginning quite mildly. The initial common cold-like symptoms worsen over the first couple of weeks, resulting in the production of thick mucus and severe coughing bouts. The coughing bouts cause children to lose their breath, turn red, and sometimes vomit. At the end of the bout, the child may desperately suck in air, resulting in the “whooping” noise for which the disease is named. Potentially life-threatening complications include dehydration, pneumonia, pulmonary hypertension (a restriction of the arteries within the lungs), and bacterial infections.
At its height, whooping cough claimed over 6,000 lives each year in the United States. Remarkably, during the 1940s, it was responsible for the deaths of more infants than polio, measles, tuberculosis, and all other childhood diseases combined. Chicago officials were so alarmed they required infected children, following a two-week quarantine period, to be accompanied by an attendant and to wear a yellow armband with the words “Whooping Cough” written in large black letters on it.
After an early stint in public education, Kendrick immersed herself in public health, eventually earning her Ph.D. in microbiology from Johns Hopkins University. She developed her whooping cough vaccine while directing the Western Michigan Branch Laboratory in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Kendrick and Grand rapids made the perfect team. Kendrick was a brilliant researcher and Grand Rapids was a model community, promoting a vibrant children’s health program. But, this was the heart of the Great Depression and funding was virtually nonexistent. That didn’t stop Kendrick who, along with her partner Grace Eldering, developed the vaccine primarily during her off hours. “When the work day was over,” Kendrick later reminisced, “we started on the research because it was fun. We’d come home, feed the dogs, get some dinner and get back to what was interesting.” Kendrick’s dedication paid off. Using Grand Rapids as a self-contained clinical trial, Kendrick began, in 1932, with a small group of local physicians. She both collected samples from them and then later provided them with the first test vaccines.
Kendrick, though modest and not interested in personal acclaim, was nonetheless tenacious in her pursuit of the pertussis vaccine. In 1936, in desperate need of additional funds to continue her work, Kendrick invited First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to spend the day at her laboratory. Mrs. Roosevelt may have found a kindred spirit in Kendrick, as the First Lady had begun to investigate the practice of using orphans in vaccine research. This practice appalled Kendrick, and she instead used the strong ties she built with the residents of Grand Rapids to find willing volunteers for her research. Mrs. Roosevelt spent a full thirteen hours with Kendrick that day – she later helped find the funding to add several workers to Kendrick’s staff.
This allowed Kendrick and Eldering to continue a large-scale trial they had begun in 1934, which eventually involved over 5,800 children. The results were stellar, with the children who received the active vaccine demonstrating a strong immunity. Kendrick also settled the issue of quarantine times, which were being hotly debated, with some isolation periods being as short as two weeks. Her research revealed children were infectious through three weeks but, after five weeks, over 90 percent were non-contagious. Michigan adopted her standard and set a 35 day quarantine.
By 1943, Kendrick’s and Eldering’s vaccine was in routine use throughout the United States, and by the early 1960s the rate of incidence of whooping cough had plummeted to less than 5 percent of the 1934 rate. In 1942, motivated by their concern of “lessening discomfort of the child,” Kendrick and Eldering combined three vaccines into a single shot, the Diphtheria, Pertussis, and Tetanus (DPT) vaccine which became the standard vaccine nationwide.
Though whooping cough deaths in the United States have been reduced to a handful each year, pertussis continues to be a killer in the developing nations of the world. The World Health Organization estimates over 39 million cases occur worldwide each year, resulting in close to 300,000 deaths.