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You don’t know these women (you really should). All they did was end a deadly plague.

A photo grid showing two women and an infant on the lift, and two women on top right and bottom right.
Grand Rapids History Center, Grand Rapids Public Library
Pearl Kendrick (above, right) and Grace Eldering (below, right)

A highly contagious disease was claiming lives, with no end in sight. Some members of the public, including a few members of the medical community, were skeptical of a new vaccine. And the gap between the have’s and the have-nots grew wider.

The year was not 2020. In fact, it was 1932.

But two under-the-radar women were largely responsible for ending America’s nightmare, according to a new chronicle, authored by award-winning journalist Richard Conniff in Smithsonian Magazine. Sad to say, most Americans have never heard their name.

“People like Jonas Salk became saints - and everybody knew their names,” said Conniff. “And these two women who actually saved more lives because pertussis killed far more children, are forgotten.”

Conniff visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about his new cover story for Smithsonian and the fascinating story of the women who, simply put, ended a plague.

“News value, of course, had little meaning for Kendrick and Eldering. They wanted only to save children's lives. Having achieved that, they were content to be forgotten.”

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It is Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. Here's a scenario: The economy is a mess. The gap between the haves and the have nots is getting wider. A terrible disease claims more lives with no end in sight. And some people, including some in the media and some people in the medical community, are skeptical about a new vaccine. Sound familiar? The year was 1932, and it is the centerpiece of a new must-read article in the just-released latest edition of Smithsonian Magazine. And in it, we learn of two women who helped develop a vaccine, trailblazed a new way of looking at an epidemic, and pretty much saved untold lives. The title of the article is “The Undaunted,” and its author is National Magazine Award winner Richard Conniff. Richard Conniff. Good morning!

RICHARD CONNIFF: Good morning. Thank you.

PRENTICE: First off, I have to ask: I am curious about the timing of your research and what inspired you to write this fascinating piece of journalism.

CONNIFF: Well, yeah, the timing with COVID 19 is certainly a factor. Also, I've been working on the history of ending epidemics for a book that's coming out next year, and this story fit into that as well.

PRENTICE: These two women, one from upstate New York, the other from Montana, and let's get their names right out front: Grace Eldering and Pearl Kendrick. One of the first things that jumps out is how they enlisted the trust and enthusiasm from the public

CONNIFF: That wasn't so unusual then. The 1930s was also the time that the March of Dimes started to raise funds for polio, and people literally gave their dimes even when that's all they had. They worked hard to stop them.

PRENTICE: We are talking about pertussis, and it claimed thousands of lives, most of them way too young. Could you talk a little bit about this? They did not have the full support of the medical community. Mostly male.

CONNIFF: No. So, they developed their vaccine in 1932, 1933, and at that point, all the available pertussis vaccines had been failures. The AMA had just issued a statement saying they're useless. They don't work. And so, these two women -  and women doing this sort of thing was that was quite unusual, then led to a lot of men, including prominent men with better credentials, saying, “You know, this is not true,” that they didn't believe the results.

PRENTICE: And here we are now in an age of vaccine skepticism. And the fact that pertussis, sad to say, is on the rise again.

CONNIFF: Well, because people have stopped getting their kids vaccinated. We're seeing a lot of diseases that were eliminated only a few years ago making a resurgence, and it's sad because people are dying, children are dying as a result. Also, COVID 19 has affected the story because internationally, the routine vaccination has fallen off because people had to suspend programs during the lockdown. There was an estimate before the pandemic that 160000 children were dying every year from pertussis internationally, and that's probably going to go up because of the lack of vaccine.

PRENTICE: But back in the day, because of these women, the pertussis vaccines did ultimately become a routine part of the medical regimen for children and saved generations.

CONNIFF: Yeah. From 1932 when they started. 7,500 children were dying that year of pertussis, mostly children who were infants and the by the 1940s, when their vaccine became approved by the AMA. That number dropped in half, actually. It dropped from 4000, which was more the average. It dropped in half, and then it dropped by the 1970s to just 10 deaths a year in the United States. As I was writing this story, I kept thinking, you know, I could have been one of those children because I grew up in that era and I had this vaccine. And if I hadn't, you know, I would have been vulnerable like all these other children.

PRENTICE: With your permission, I want to read a few lines here:

“News value, of course, had little meaning for Kendrick and Eldering. They wanted only to save children's lives. Having achieved that, they were content to be forgotten.”

My goodness, and they should be anything but forgotten.

CONNIFF: Yeah, that's also the interesting thing. You know, people like Jonas Salk became saints and everybody knew their names. And these two women who actually saved more lives because pertussis killed on a regular basis, far more children, are forgotten.

PRENTICE: Another integral part of this story and little known, was the importance of the involvement of a woman of color.

328-2-24_001.jpg
Grand Rapids History Center, Grand Rapids Public Library
Loney Clinton Gordon

CONNIFF: Yeah. Loney Clinton Gordon had come to Grand Rapids to work as a dietitian, which was her training but couldn't get a job because the hospital that she applied, she thought that people wouldn't want to take orders from a black woman. So Pearl Kendrick hired her instead to work in her laboratory, and the job was to look at bacterial specimens and find one that had the most visible potency because of the way it would eat into the blood in the petri dish. And she was looking one day, and she found a specimen, and she brought it to Kendrick and to Elder, and they examined it and did all these tests and tests and tests, and it turned out to be a major improvement in the effectiveness of the vaccine.

PRENTICE: There's a lovely addition in tucked inside this story, and that is these women met an icon of their times and trailblazer as well. And of course, that was the First Lady.

CONNIFF: Yep. The first round of clinical testing that they did, got rejected by the male hierarchy in the medical world. And so they started to do a more elaborate test and they got Eleanor Roosevelt to come visit them. And she was, according to Pearl Kendrick, one of the only outsiders who seemed to understand what they were doing. And she got extra funding for them from the Works Progress Administration and enabled them to complete a clinical study of 40 to 100 children.

PRENTICE: Oh my goodness, the outsider who was ultimately the greatest insider. Do you have a working title for your book yet?

CONNIFF: Yeah, the book is called “Ending Epidemics A History of Escape from Contagion.”

PRENTICE: I'm all in to have an approximate date, you said next year.

CONNIFF: Yeah, it'll be spring 2023, and it's coming out from MIT Press.

PRENTICE: Congratulations on the undaunted. It's in the just released Smithsonian Magazine and he is Richard Conniff. Thank you so very much for giving us some time this morning.

CONNIFF: Thank you, George.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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