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Born in Forrest City, Arkansas, Loney Clinton Gordon (1915-1999) moved to Grand Rapids, MI, with her family as a young child. She graduated from South High School in Grand Rapids and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in home economics and chemistry from Michigan State College (now Michigan State University). Following graduation, Gordon fulfilled her goal of obtaining employment as a dietician in Virginia. The role was challenging due to the racism and discrimination she experienced. Gordon was informed that white chefs would not take orders from a female dietitian. Due to the treatment she received, Gordon left Virginia and returned home to Grand Rapids. She continued to face challenges finding employment as a dietitian due to her race.
During this time, Dr. Pearl Kendrick and Dr. Grace Eldering sought to employ a laboratory technician to support their whooping cough vaccine research at Western Michigan Laboratories (Kent Community Hospital). According to the Centers For Disease Control (CDC), Pertussis, or whooping cough, is an acute infectious disease. Outbreaks of pertussis were first identified in the 16th century by Guillaume de Baillou. In the 20th century, pertussis was one of the most common childhood diseases and a major cause of childhood death in the United States. Before the availability of pertussis vaccine in the 1940s, more than 200,000 cases of pertussis were reported annually. Since widespread use of the vaccine began, incidence has decreased more than 75% compared with the prevaccine era.
Loney Clinton Gordon was hired to assist Dr. Kendrick and Dr. Eldering in their research. Together, this three-woman team began to search for a cure. At that time, the two doctors had already been conducting research to improve the whooping cough vaccine for 10 years. At that time, Michigan was experiencing one of the highest death tolls related to whooping cough. Gordon’s role was to analyze and isolate Bordetella Pertussis, the bacteria that causes whooping cough. The vaccines being used at that time were not strong enough, making them ineffective. Through her research, Gordon identified the use of sheep’s blood as an effective method to incubate the bacteria cultures. This discovery allowed the team to produce a more potent vaccine. Gordon’s efforts were a key factor in developing the new vaccine. Interviewed by historian Carolyn Shapiro-Shapin in 1998, Gordon said,
“So this one day, I went in and said, Okay God, this has to be the day.”
Gordon’s job ended after the vaccine was developed. She then accepted a role working for the State Health Department of Michigan until her retirement. Gordon passed away in 1999 from complications related to a stroke. She was posthumously inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame in 2000.
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