Pertussis, People and Passion

Dr. Kendrick and Dr. Eldering

Dr. Hugh MacDonald

The story of how the pertussis vaccine was developed may sound like a dry history lecture, but it actually has all the trappings of a modern day thriller – a gritty tale of underdog heroes and heroines who overcome overwhelming adversity through tenacious persistence and personal sacrifice to save thousands of lives!  So pop up the corn, and read on.

The pertussis bacterium was discovered in 1906, but initial vaccines didn’t work very well.  Children were dying by the thousands.  Sparked by the epidemic plaguing their Grand Rapids community in 1932, Dr. Pearl Kendrick and Dr. Grace Eldering, research bacteriologists at Michigan State, determined to develop a pertussis vaccine.  

After their day job of water and milk analysis, Drs. Kendrick and Eldering gathered specimens from children in their homes, often at night by the light of kerosene lamps, and distributed bacterial culture plates to local physicians.   

Despite the harsh conditions and shoestring budget, they developed precise methods of preparing vaccine; established sterility, safety, and effectiveness tests; and even conducted well-controlled field trials.   In 1936, Eleanor Roosevelt visited their lab and was instrumental in increasing their personnel and funding.   Kendrick’s and Eldering’s vaccine went on to virtually eliminate all fatalities from pertussis.

At about the same time, Dr. Hugh MacDonald, a physician in Skokie, Illinois, developed his own version of a pertussis vaccine and actually tested it on his own family!  He gave his wife Edith and two of his sons the vaccine in February of 1933, and then in June he sprayed the pertussis bacteria into their noses!  I’m guessing there was no IRB back then…

Dr. MacDonald then quarantined his family in an apartment for the summer.   Within two days, his unvaccinated children developed a cough that became progressively worse.   The vaccinated children did not cough at all.  The family survived the summer, and their story was told to the world through newspapers and scientific journals.  

So if you haven’t already, be sure to get the pertussis vaccine.  Getting a shot may not be as dramatic as CSI Skokie, but you’ll be saving lives just the same.  And we won’t even have to lock you in your apartment all summer.

Jo Hanna Friend D’Epiro, PA-C, MPH
Student Health Services
The Ohio State University