Black History Month: Loney Clinton Gordon Contributes to the Development of the Vaccine Against Whooping Cough

February 10, 2019 Rene F. Najera

Loney Clinton Gordon was born in Arkansas in 1915. After moving to Michigan as a young girl, Ms. Gordon attended Michigan State College and earned a bachelor’s degree in home economics and chemistry in 1939. In 1944, after a short stint trying to be a dietitian, Ms. Gordon found her place at the Michigan Department of Health’s Grand Rapids laboratory. A short time after that, she worked with Pearl Kendrick and Grace Eldering (two female doctors) at the Western Michigan Laboratories. Their work involved the development of a viable vaccine against Bordetella pertussis (the bacteria that causes whooping cough).

From the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan:

“Throughout the 1940s, Kendrick’s team continued to improve the vaccine they created. A third woman in their lab, the African-American chemist Loney Gordon, isolated an especially virulent strain of pertussis that made an even more effective vaccine than the first. Kendrick and Eldering combined the vaccines for three diseases—diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus—in order to spare children the pain of getting three shots at once. This work made Kendrick a world-renowned expert in pertussis and vaccine field trials, and she traveled widely as a consultant for the World Health Organization.”

Loney Clinton Gordon would continue to work in laboratory medicine until her retirement in 1978. Michigan House Resolution No. 115 (1997) recognized her contribution to the development of the whooping cough vaccine:

“Whereas, Loney Gordon’s research was a key component in developing a successful vaccine, which was proved by the British Medical Research Council, in tests conducted from 1946 to 1950, to be several times stronger than the best one that Grace Eldering and Pearl Kendrick had been able to develop; now, therefore, be it resolved by the House of Representatives, that we hereby express our sincere appreciation and acknowledgment to Loney Gordon for the contribution that she has made to the health of the citizens of our State, our nation, and the world through her work in the development of a vaccine against whooping cough; and be it further resolved, That copies of this resolution be transmitted to Loney Gordon, on the occasion of Women’s History Month, 1997, as we wish to record forever in the Journals of this State’s history this acknowledgment of our esteem and gratitude to Loney Gordon, that all may know from this day forward of her heroic work and accomplishment.”

In 2000, about a year after her death, Ms. Gordon was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame.

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