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Women's History Month: Pittman and Kendrick


René F. Najera, DrPH

March 30, 2017

Margaret Pittman working in lab

With Women’s History Month coming to an end, intern Carley Roche recognizes two influential female researchers whose work has saved countless lives.

Margaret Pittman was born January 20, 1901, in Prairie Grove, Arkansas. After graduating magna cum laude with a BA in mathematics and biology she went on to attend the University of Chicago. By 1929, Pittman had received both her master’s and her PhD in bacteriology. As a doctoral student, Pittman took a position at the Rockefeller Institute in New York in an attempt to answer the question, “Does Hemophilius influenzae cause influenza?” While attempting to answer this question (it does not cause influenza), Pittman discovered that there are six identifiable strains of H. influenzae (a through f) bacteria that are encapsulated in a polysaccharide outer coating. She drew attention to the fact that H. influenzae type b, or Hib, was the serotype that most often caused serious infections, sometimes leading to blindness and even death in young children. Her work eventually led others to develop effective vaccines against Hib.

During the mid- and late 1930s, Pittman worked with Dr. Sarah E. Branham at the National Institutes of Health to develop standards for a meningococcal antiserum. The Second World War brought a shift in focus to Pittman’s work and she focused on adverse events after receipt of blood. Her research during the war led to changes in standards for blood transfusions. After WWII, she led the team at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in developing standards for a pertussis vaccine. In 1958, Pittman made history when she became the first woman to head a laboratory at NIH. She held the title of Chief of the Laboratory of Bacterial Products until her retirement in 1971.

Pittman’s career continued to grow as she helped research and development of vaccinations around the globe. During the 1960s, she worked as project director at a cholera research laboratory in Dacca, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) for the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). Pittman helped design the laboratory, the equipment, and the research that would take place at SEATO. With Pittman leading the team their findings demonstrated that the effectiveness of a cholera vaccination directly relates to its potency assay. This research project also verified the importance of IV restorative fluids in treatment procedures for victims of cholera. Today SEATO has been replaced by the International Center for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh.

Dr. Pittman’s contributions to medicine cannot be overstated. She was a leading force in vaccine research and her work has changed modern-day standards.

Pearl Kendrick

Pearl Kendrick was born August 24, 1890, in Wheaton, Illinois. As a child, she fell victim to pertussis (more commonly known as whooping cough) and dedicated her life’s work to fighting the disease. Kendrick graduated from Syracuse University with a BS in 1914 and from Johns Hopkins University with a master’s in bacteriology in 1934.

In 1906, Belgian researchers Jules Bordet and Octave Gengou discovered that Bordetella pertussis is the bacteria that causes pertussis. Twenty years later, however, scientists had yet to develop an effective vaccine against the disease. Inspired by her own childhood affliction, and the fact that about 6,000 people (95% children) in the United States died each year from pertussis, Kendrick began her research. She took a position as Chief of the Western Michigan Branch Laboratory at the Michigan Department of Health. Here she met Grace Eldering and the two women led the vaccine project.

Their research began in 1932 during the Great Depression, which greatly limited their funding, but the two women proved to be a successful team. Kendrick and Eldering first discovered the proper quarantine time for children with pertussis to be 4 to 5 weeks instead of the usual 2 to 3 weeks. Kendrick and Eldering formed close relationships with local families and physicians, so they were able to collect much needed cough plates to further their research. Kendrick expanded their research in order to create a more general vaccine by combining the collected local strains of B. pertussis. After initial controlled animal studies Kendrick was satisfied with the results and began human clinical trials in 1934. At the time it was common to use orphans or institutionalized children for research purposes, but Kendrick and Eldering instead asked for local volunteers. Over the next year Kendrick and Eldering observed 1,592 children with 712 of them receiving the vaccination and 880 acting as the control group. This is the one of the first example of a large-scale controlled clinical trial. The trial showed an 89% efficacy rate, and with further research Kendrick and Eldering began mass-production of their pertussis vaccine in 1938 for the state of Michigan. By 1940 children across the United States received the vaccine. Routine use of the vaccine eventually radically reduced the number of cases and deaths from the disease. 

Kendrick was a pioneer in bacteriology research. She personally helped establish vaccine programs around the world and reviewed them while acting as a consultant for the World Health Organization. Kendrick retired from the Michigan Department of Health in 1951 and became a faculty member at the University of Michigan’s Department of Epidemiology and the president of the Michigan branch of the American Society for Microbiology. She died in 1980.


Margaret Pittman

Pearl Kendrick


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