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Pearl Kendrick: Biography, Facts & Quotes

Instructor: Bridgett Payseur

Bridgett has a PhD in microbiology and immunology and teaches college biology.

You've probably never heard of Pearl Kendrick, but she's saved millions of lives. Read on to learn about how Pearl helped develop the first effective whooping cough vaccine.

Who Was Pearl Kendrick?

You've probably heard of whooping cough, a respiratory infection that makes breathing so difficult the patient has loud, 'whooping' sounds. You probably don't worry about it because it can be prevented with a vaccine. But people used to worry quite a bit about it before this life-saving change; whooping cough caused over 6,000 deaths per year, mostly in young children.

The whooping cough vaccine was co-developed in the 1930s by a scientist named Pearl Kendrick. Let's learn about her life.

Early Years

Kendrick was born in Wheaton, Illinois, in 1890. As a child, she herself suffered from whooping cough, but survived. She briefly attended Greenville College before transferring to Syracuse University, where she completed her bachelor's degree in 1914.

Kendrick was originally a teacher in upstate New York. While continuing to teach, she began studying bacteriology at Columbia University. In 1917, she was recruited to the Michigan Department of Health, heading the Grand Rapids branch. While working here, she was encouraged to continue her education, and eventually earned her doctoral degree from Johns Hopkins University in 1932.

Study of Whooping Cough

As Kendrick was beginning her career in the early 1930s, Michigan was swept with an epidemic of pertussis (whooping cough). The infection caused thousands of deaths a year, mostly in young children, and sickened many more. Kendrick and her lab partner, Grace Elderling, began working to help quell the infection.

One of the first challenges to fighting pertussis infection was being able to diagnose it quickly and accurately. Kendrick and Eldering modified some bacterial growth media to create 'cough plates'. These allowed doctors to definitively diagnose whooping cough in patients.

By providing the plates to doctors, she was also able to easily collect samples of the pertussis bacteria for her epidemiology work at the Michigan Department of Health. Prior to Kendrick's work, different health departments throughout the United States had different quarantine times for whooping cough patients, because no one knew how long a patient was infectious.

Using the cough plates, Kendrick was able to determine that patients were infectious for about two weeks, which helped create a common quarantine period throughout the country.

Whooping Cough Vaccine

Kendrick and Eldering worked hard during the workday to track the whooping cough epidemic. However, ''When the work day was over, 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 and Eldering developed a vaccine against whooping cough by inactivating the bacteria with thimerosol.

Because the United States was in the middle of a severe economic depression, it was difficult to find funding for their research. Kendrick and Eldering eventually invited first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to tour their lab, and she helped them obtain more secure funding for their vaccine.

The two scientists developed and performed carefully controlled trials. An initial trial was performed in 1936, and was followed-up by another in 1938. Kendrick was cautiously optimistic about the results of the trial, warning of the ''danger of giving [the numbers] too much weight in the face of the relatively small number of whooping cough cases.''

Many in the scientific community were surprised by the success of the vaccine, as previous attempts from other researchers had not provided protection from whooping cough. However, because Kendrick and Eldering had so carefully controlled their trials, the results were eventually accepted by the scientific community. The vaccine was released in Michigan, and throughout the United States by 1940.

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