Grand Rapids woman helped make stronger whooping cough vaccine

Black History Month

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Born in 1915 in Arkansas, Loney Clinton Gordon soon found herself living in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The woman, who would later be inducted into the Women’s Hall of Fame for her contributions to medicine, attended South High School. She went on to study home economics and chemistry at Michigan State University, receiving her bachelor’s degree in 1939. She moved south to work following graduation.

After discrimination forced her to leave a job in Virginia, she moved back to Grand Rapids. There, she met Dr. Pearl Kendrick and Dr. Grace Eldering.

Eldering and Kendrick started developing a vaccine for whooping cough in 1932. They brought Clinton Gordon onto their team in 1944 to help make the vaccine more effective against new strains of the deadly virus.

“They have a vaccine. They’re looking to make it even better and to do that, you have to isolate a strand of the bacilli,” said GVSU history professor Carolyn Shapiro-Shapin.

Loney Clinton Gordon, who was inducted into the Women’s Hall of fame for her contributions to medicine, works with doctors in Grand Rapids. (Courtesy: The Grand Rapids Public Library)

Shapiro-Shapin interviewed Clinton Gordon in 1998 about her work as a chemist.

“She isolated a particular strand of pertussis, which was then used to make an even more potent vaccine,” Shapiro-Shapin said. “She says, ‘It’s a wonder I still have eyes.’ Pertussis is a very persnickety organism.”

The audio interview is now housed at the Grand Rapids Public Library.

“Her story to me is when people hire according to talent — regardless of who they are — you get talent and therefore the vaccine is made better because of her work,” Shapiro-Shapin said.

Clinton Gordon is now one of three women that makes up a bronze statue in front of the Michigan State University Research Center in downtown Grand Rapids.

“These were women who the honor was the recognition of their peers and the recognition that they were doing something to save children’s lives. These are women who would be very surprised to find themselves in bronze,” Shapiro-Shapin said.

Clinton Gordon died in 1999. She was inducted into the Women’s Hall of Fame in 2000. 

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