Vaccination history lesson

You know who developed the whooping cough vaccine? No neither did I until I looked it up. Pearl Kendrick.

In 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.

Measles, scarlet fever, tuberculosis, diphtheria, polio… These are all dreadful diseases, but none claimed as many young lives in the United States in the 1920s as whooping cough.

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.

Kendrick got a PhD in microbiology at Johns Hopkins and developed an effective vaccine.

And guess what else.

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.

No using orphans in vaccine research! Recruit willing volunteers instead!

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.

So that’s Pearl Kendrick.


  1. tuibguy says

    I like the idea of the combined vaccination, as a dad who watched the cry escape from my infant daughter when she got a sharp jab and cried a bit. I am glad she only had the one that day.

    (And that she never contracted pertussis, of course.)

  2. Claire Ramsey says

    So, what this means is that within LIVING MEMORY whooping cough was killing children (and I bet adults). And Pearl Kendrick PhD and her colleagues developed a vaccine. And now, there is another epidemic of pertussis in CA (I remember the 2010 wave of pertussis in CA b/c it raged in the dorms on my campus). Because the selfish and ignorant decided not to have their kids immunized. Slap them! SLAP THEM ALL! HARD!!

  3. says

    Yup. It means that within LIVING MEMORY whooping cough was killing MORE CHILDREN than all other childhood diseases COMBINED.

    Slap the selfish and ignorant!

  4. sailor1031 says

    You bet it’s within living memory! When I was a young kid living in WW2 England, my younger sister, two years old, got whooping cough. I’ll never, ever forget it. She coughed and gasped for weeks. Of course what with wartime shortages and priorities there wasn’t a vaccine available then so it was a question of luck whether or not you got this horrible disease. She was unlucky. But anyone who voluntarily puts children, and not just his own but others too, at this kind of risk deserves some serious sanction. It’s nothing but reckless child endangerment which is a crime.

  5. Tsu Dho Nimh says

    Harking back to the posts on the Irish home vaccine studies … this was in many ways a far more dangerous study than the 1930s diphtheria vaccine administration or the combined Irish polio/DPT study from the 1960s, because those were vaccines where the initial concepts had already been proven.

    These Grand Rapids children were TRULY experimented on, because until Kendrick’s work, no one had managed to get useful pertussis immunity: they got nothing or they got hyper immunity and really horrible side effects. Pertussis is a bitch of a bacteria to develop vaccines for because it has so many ways to kill an infant – mechanical clogging and various toxins – and we’re still finding out how it works.

    It’s a measure of how feared whooping cough was that parents would have their chuildren participitate in these studies.

  6. Blanche Quizno says

    My mother was born in 1932. She used to mention how commonplace quarantines were when she was growing up. Nobody goes in; nobody comes out. I guess family and friends and neighbors would deliver food to the house, leave it on the porch, whatever.

    She also mentioned that, when she was in grade school, there was always at least one child (usually a boy) in every single class with a stutter. This was when they were forcing all children to be right-handed, BTW. Now we no longer attempt to dictate handedness, and stuttering has become extremely rare. I’ve only seen it once, and that was back in 1978, in a man who was at that point apparently in his mid-30s.


  7. Blanche Quizno says

    The problem is that people are no longer surrounded by children dying of pertussis. Yeah, it’s within memory, but those who remember are not in a position to choose whether children get immunized or not. Since obviously people are less able to learn from anything other than personal experience, we may have to accept that there will be cycles similar to boom-bust, where waves of widespread immunization are followed by waves of avoiding immunization, followed by epidemics and piles of dead kids. Which will result in widespread immunization and it starts all over again.

    It would be nice if we could learn without having to be surrounded by the horrors of dying and death, but it appears we’re too stupid.

  8. johnthedrunkard says

    The United States…Eleanor Roosevelt…secular health care…
    I still see stuttering, though I have no way of assessing if it has become rarer. I know it does link with handedness, AND that idiotic attempts to force right-handedness had terrible effects. But I wouldn’t declare the problem solved.

    Lots of stuttering/stammering is veiled in the form of hesitation, or the avalanche of ‘um-like-y’know’ fillers that interrupt speech.

  9. Blanche Quizno says

    Good point, john the drunkard. My son had a sort of speech tic when he was younger, like he’d say something like, “When are you-you-you going to come home?” It was a repeat of a word – I noticed it also in the anesthesiologist who put my then-4-yr-old daughter under to have a broken tooth extracted. This would’ve been ca. 2004; he was in his 30s. It turns out my son has Tourrette’s, so his odd (though mild) speech difference may have been a manifestation of that disorder’s spectrum of symptoms. The happy news is that he is now 17 and doing very well – he controls his Tourrette’s tics without medication, he’s doing well in school, he’s popular, plays French horn in a concert band and an orchestra, participates in sports, has had his driver’s license almost a year and not even a fender bender – in short, it’s all worked out wonderfully.

    But these are *NOTHING* like a real stutter. The man I met (I was working at a donut shop) said “I’d like a SHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSH” and had to start over. It was very loud, very shocking. He couldn’t help it.

    Here is a video by a young man with a debilitating stutter, though it’s less aggressive than the one I heard so many years ago.

    Here’s another kid trying to explain how it is – truly debilitating:

    Can you *imagine* choosing to enforce superficial social conformity at such a cost??

    Country singer Mel Tillis has a debilitating stutter as well – when he was in a movie called “The Villain” back in the day, you can really see how he struggles – at a coupla points, he sings the lines because he can’t speak them:

    Yeah, that’s the young Arnold Schwarzenegger across from him! Ca. 1979!


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