From the Archives

From the Archives

When Pearl Kendrick and Grace Eldering began collecting b. pertussis specimens in 1928, they came face to face with the bleak realities of whooping cough. “We collected specimens by the light of kerosene lamps, from whooping, vomiting, strangling children,” Eldering would remember. “We saw what the disease could do.”

What the disease did was kill. In the late 1920s, pertussis, or whooping cough, claimed an average of 6,000 lives a year in the U.S., nearly all of them children under five. Although scientists had identified the causative organism of pertussis in 1906, there was as yet no effective, readily available vaccine to prevent the disease.

Kendrick, a Grand Rapids–born bacteriologist who served as chief of the Western Michigan Branch Laboratory of the Michigan Department of Health, set out to find one. She enlisted the help of Eldering, a fellow bacteriologist, and together the two women developed a program of research, performed lab experiments, conducted field tests, and ultimately succeeded in growing pertussis in sheep’s blood.

In 1934, they began inoculating children in a vast and complex clinical trial in Grand Rapids. That Kendrick could assemble the people and money needed for such a trial in the midst of the Great Depression is a testament to her character, as is her determination to know whether her vaccine truly worked. Kendrick not only welcomed scrutiny, she courted it.

In the end, the vaccine did work, and in 1940 the state of Michigan began producing and distributing it, all but ending the scourge of whooping cough deaths. Kendrick and Eldering later combined shots for diphtheria, whooping cough, and tetanus into the single DPT shot children routinely receive today.

Following her retirement from the Michigan Department of Public Health in 1951, Kendrick joined the faculty of the Department of Epidemiology at UM, where she remained until her second retirement in 1960. She died in 1980.

As a graduate student at SPH, David Ast, MPH ’42, wrote his master’s thesis about fluoridated water and its potential to reduce tooth decay. As dental director for the state of New York, he made a bid to conduct the nation’s first trials of fluoridation. Although he failed in that bid, Ast conducted the second trials, in upstate New York. And his initial proposal helped prompt the federal government to begin field trials of fluoridation in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1945. Evidence from those trials showed a dramatic reduction in caries as a result of fluoridation—so much so that in the 1960s the U.S. Public Health Service began promoting fluoridation programs throughout the country. More on SPH alumni working in dental public health.