Loney Clinton Gordon
By Hannah Krebs, 2023
Life Dates: b. October 8, 1915, d. July 16, 1999
Full Name: Loney Clinton Gordon
Tags: Government Service, Medicine, Science
Loney Clinton Gordon was a lab technician hired in 1943 for the pertussis vaccine studies in Grand Rapids by Dr. Pearl Kendrick and Dr. Grace Eldering. A 1939 graduate of Michigan State College, Gordon planned to use her home economics degree to become a dietician. However, after being told that white male chefs would not take orders from a black woman, she decided to shift to another career.
Pearl Kendrick, having heard of Gordon’s plight, hired her to fill a lab technician position for the pertussis vaccine studies. Lab technician work was monotonous and tedious. They processed the thousands of cough plates received from physicians and public health nurses, both for the study and for other health concerns in the county. For eight to twelve hours every day, lab technicians would grow and assess “piles of cultures.” About her work, Gordon said, “I don’t know why I have eyes. I must have looked at a billion plates.”
In her work with Bordetella pertussis, Gordon discovered an ideal formula for growing the bacteria, involving sheep’s blood. This formula allowed her to incubate B. pertussis strains more quickly and effectively. Because of this development, around 1944, she discovered and inoculated a particularly virulent strain of pertussis that helped to create a vaccine “several times stronger than the best one Grace Eldering and Pearl Kendrick had been able to develop.” This strong strain also helped scientists from the British Medical Research Council to further pertussis vaccine studies across the pond.
After her discovery, Gordon continued on at the Michigan Department of Health, working first in the Grand Rapids laboratory as a microbiologist. She then moved to the Lansing laboratory in 1956, after marrying her husband, Edward Gordon. Because of her work on the pertussis studies, Gordon was able to travel through Europe and the Middle East with the National Council on Christians and Jews. She delivered over 50 speeches on her work throughout the United States as well.
Gordon retired from the Michigan Department of Health in 1978, largely unrecognized outside of the department for her hard work. This changed in 1997, when Gordon was recognized by the Michigan House of Representatives’ House Resolution No. 115, honoring her work.
Gordon passed away in 1999, but her legacy lives on. In 2019, the Grand Rapids Community Legends Project unveiled a statue of Pearl Kendrick, Grace Eldering, and Loney Clinton Gordon at the Michigan State University Research Center. The statue commemorates and recognizes the life-saving accomplishments of all three of these women.
Michigan Women and the Whooping Cough Vaccine. Collection 328. Grand Rapids History Center, Grand Rapids Public Library, Grand Rapids, Michigan.