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This Week In Illinois History: Dr. Pearl Kendrick (October 8, 1980)

Dr. Pearl Kendrick
U-M Library Digital Collections, Bentley Image Bank, Bentley Historical Library
Dr. Pearl Kendrick

October 8, 1980, saw the passing of Dr. Pearl Kendrick, but her life’s work still saves the lives of over 6,000 American children – and thousands more around the world – every year. Dr. Kendrick perfected the vaccine for pertussis, more commonly known as whooping cough.

Born in Wheaton, Illinois, on August 24, 1890, Kendrick attended Greenville College in Greenville, Illinois, then transferred to Syracuse to complete her undergraduate degree. She then spent several years working as a teacher. But while working, she continued her studies, taking courses on bacteriology at Columbia University. She eventually earned her doctorate from Johns Hopkins University and became an epidemiologist at Michigan’s Department of Public Health.

After long days at the lab, Kendrick and her colleague, Grace Eldering, would tromp through the snow from house to house looking for children suffering from whooping cough, a disease that killed 6,000 children each year in the United States. Like Kendrick, Eldering also was a former teacher, and the two women knew how to communicate with kids and their parents. When they located a sick child, they had them cough onto a petri dish to take back to the lab.

They worked on a shoestring budget, often after hours, until their work caught the eye of Eleanor Roosevelt. The First Lady visited their lab and was so impressed that she helped them secure federal funding.

When Kendrick and Eldering’s vaccine was released in 1938, it proved to be 90% effective. Their lab assistant on the vaccine was Loney Clinton Gordon, an African-American female chemist. In the late 1940s, Kendrick, Eldering and Gordon worked together to combine the pertussis vaccine with the vaccines for tetanus and diphtheria. Together, they created the DTP vaccine, an early version of the DTaP vaccine that is standard for American children today and has prevented the suffering of millions of children worldwide.

Clint Cargile is the host of This Week in Illinois History and the creator and host of the podcast Drinkin’ with Lincoln.
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