Pearl Kendrick

Whooping coughs can bring a lot of discomfort to individuals affected by it. Pearl Kendrick, an American bacteriologist, helped in co-developing the vaccine which counters whooping cough. Apart from this breakthrough, she also had contributions for improving the international vaccine standards to better promote health protection. Her name is one of the more prominent names for women who have contributed to science and although she wasn’t the sole inventor of the vaccine, her other contributions have made their own mark for various healthcare concerns.


Early Life and Educational Background

The reason behind inventing a vaccine which can counter whooping cough was that when Pearl Kendrick, born Pearl Louella Kendrick in August 24, 1890 turned three years old, she had been hit with whooping cough. Back then it was known as “pertussis” and it was named after the bacteria called Bordetella pertussis. Around 45 years later she had her revenge by developing the very first anti whooping cough vaccine.

Pearl’s father was a preacher, and in 1908, she graduated from high school. She first attended Greenville College where she stayed for a year before moving to Syracuse University where she received her diploma in the year 1914. In 1934, she graduated from Johns Hopkins University.

Pearl Kendrick’s Quest to Fight Whooping Cough

As a backgrounder, whooping cough during those times was a dreadful disease and during the year where it was most prevailent, it had claimed more than 6000 lives in just the United States alone. In the 1940s, whooping cough had been responsible for infant deaths—even more so than measles, polio, tuberculosis, and it had caused so much more childhood deaths compared to all those infant diseases combined. The effects caused by whooping cough were so alarming that infected children had been quarantined for two weeks while wearing a yellow armband which had the words “whooping cough” in big black letters.

Having been affected by this condition, it was one of Kendrick’s motivation to find a solution to counter whooping cough. She was a native of the Grand Rapids of Michigan, and while she was there, she had an office at the Western Michigan Branch Laboratory of the Michigan Department of Health. During the same period, she began to immerse herself in concerns about public health at the same time she was working her way to have her Ph.D. in microbiology.

While she was at Western Michigan Branch Laboratory, she met Grace Elderling who was going to be her partner in discovering the vaccine which would eventually counter whooping cough. Kendrick had a heart for promoting better children’s health programs and with Elderling, they were the perfect team. However, it was the time of the Great Depression, and because of this, funding for research as well as making programs realities were scarce—a major challenge which the team faced.

This did not, however, stop Kendrick and Elderling from developing the vaccine to counter whooping cough—something which they actually did during their off hours when work in the laboratory was over. It was in 1932 when she began this research, and it began as a fun engagement which later on turned out to be something which could save millions of lives.

Kendrick used the Grand Rapids as her clinical trial area and she was working with a team of local physicians to develop the vaccine along with Elderling. Samples were collected from the physicians in the area, and these same physicians also were the first ones who had their very first test vaccines.

Times were hard because of the lack of funding, but this didn’t stop Kendrick who wasn’t doing this for personal acclaim but really just to help improve the lives of those who were potentially going to be affected by whooping cough. In 1936, Kendrick had the chance to invite the first lady then, Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt to her laboratory. Initially, the first lady thought of using orphans to investigate further how the trial vaccines could work. This idea, however, did not sit well with Kendrick. Kendrick suggested to work based on the ties she has made with the locals of the Grand Rapids area from where she can find willing volunteers who can make finding more conclusive results possible. The first lady spend a total of 13 hours with Kendrick that day, and probably seeing a heart and a spirit for her work, she helped provide funding for the research done by Kendrick and Elderling.

Because of the funding which came after the first lady’s visit, Kendrick and Elderling were able to continue working on a larger scale trial come 1934. This trial later on involved more than 5,800 children from which they were able to gain positive and conclusive results from. The results were astounding. The children who first received the vaccine demonstrated having a stronger immune system—indicative of the positive effects of the vaccine.

During that large-scale trial, Kendrick also addressed the situation concerning quarantine times. According to Kendrick, affected children can be infectious from up to a period of 3 weeks, but after 5 weeks, more than 90 percent of them were no longer infectious. Because of these findings, Michigan adapted a 35-day quarantine period.

In the year 1934, the vaccine which Kendrick and Elderling created was used all over the United States as a routine vaccine. In the early years of 1960, incidences of whooping cough had decreased to less than 5% compared to the rate in 1934. This success in coming up with a vaccine to counter whooping cough did not stop Kendrick and Elderling in coming up with better solutions for child health concerns. In 1942, they were able to combine 3 vaccines into a single shot which fought diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus. This is now known as the DPT shot which is now a standard vaccine nationwide. Of note is that although whooping cough incidences have been reduced all over the United States, it still continues to cause deaths in some other developing countries of the world.

Kendrick retired from her work as a member of the Michigan Department of Public Health in 1951. She then became one of the faculty members of the Department of Epidemiology at the University of Michigan. On October 8, 1980, she died at the age of 90 in the Grand Rapids.