GRAND RAPIDS, MI – The Grand Rapids Community Legends Project on Friday, Sept. 27, unveiled its 11th sculpture, a much-awaited tribute to the pioneering research of three women who developed a vaccine for pertussis, known as whooping cough.
The sculpture titled “Adulation: The Future of Science,” features scientists Pearl Kendrick and Grace Eldering with their research assistant Loney Clinton Gordon. In an adjacent sculpture, gazing up at the public health legends, are two children.
The women are featured prominently at the Michigan State University Research Center, 400 Monroe Ave. NW. The sculpture, the work of Jay Hall Carpenter, fittingly faces Michigan Street – known as the Medical Mile.
“In 1932, 6,000 people died from whooping cough and it served as a call to action for three amazing women to say we have to do something about this,’’ Norman Beauchamp, dean of MSU’s College of Human Medicine, told around 100 gathered at MSU for the dedication.
“These three individuals in a setting of barriers, lack of resources and lack of time – they weren’t stopped. They had a sense of urgency. If we look at our nation with all the challenges we face now, we want you to know that we have that same sense of urgency as a community.’’
Kendrick, director of Michigan Public Health in Grand Rapids, and her research partner, Eldering, requested in the 1930s to focus on the whooping cough epidemic, working on their own time and within the restraints of a minuscule budget.
They reached out across the Grand Rapids community and got help supporting their important work, including from schools, civic and parent groups, business and community leaders, the public health establishment, doctors and visiting nurses, and philanthropists.
“One of the things that we really stand for in this community is better together,” Beauchamp said. “The way they were able to accomplish this was to bring together the strengths in this community.”
In the 1940s, Loney Clinton Gordon, an African American woman with a chemistry degree from MSU, joined their research team and isolated the virulent strain of pertussis that allowed the team to eventually develop an even more effective vaccine.
Proud family members and the children and siblings of those who worked with the scientists nodded and smiled as they listened to speakers recount the women’s accomplishments. When the sculpture was unveiled, they were clearly excited and moved.
“It is a great sculpture!’’ said Shirley Redland, of Montana, Dr. Eldering’s niece, who attended with her daughter and son-in-law, Ruth and Al Baue, and her granddaughter, Alison Baue.
“She just loved science, loved her work and wanted to make a difference. It is beautiful. In this location, everyone can see it.’’
Redland said she particularly liked how Carpenter incorporated things such as the clipboard her aunt holds, and science tools used in their work including petri dishes and microscopes.
She also liked the addition of the children, a boy and girl, who represent the future generation of scientists, who stand in admiration of the women holding a bug jar and magnifying glass.
“In the 1930s, when Kendrick and Eldering started their research there was a whooping cough epidemic in Grand Rapids and this dangerous disease is still with us,’’ said Carolyn Shapiro-Shapin, a Grand Valley State University history professor, who researched and wrote about the vaccine’s development.
“They recognized how deadly it was and they worked with the entire community. This was a community effort.’’
Shapiro-Shapin said the women were highly ethical, and one of the reasons First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt came to Grand Rapids in 1936 to honor the women was because they were not using orphans for research, but worked with the community to get families to volunteer bringing in their children.
Roosevelt’s visit resulted in the scientists securing funds to bring on additional lab staff.
“These dedicated researchers saved millions of lives, and their work can inspire the next generation of scientists,’’ said Legends project founder Peter F. Secchia, who commissioned and donated the sculpture with his wife, Joan, to Michigan State University.
“These are the kinds of stories that are so important to tell through the Grand Rapids Community Legends Project.”
Carpenter, who recited a poem he was inspired to write about the researchers, said a sculpture can never tell the full story. He said with his artwork he was trying to describe that particular moment when the ideal culture had been grown to create the vaccine.
“I am hoping people will appreciate as a work of art and be enough intrigued by the narrative to look into it further and learn more about the women involved, ” he said, about his third commission for the Legends project and 605th public sculpture over his four-decade career.
He was among speakers who referenced how at night Kendrick and Eldering parked their car on a hill, so if they needed to rush out to pick up a cough sample from a sick child, they only had to roll the car into gear.
Beauchamp spoke about the large clinical trial they conducted with 4,000 people that demonstrated the vaccine would work against the bacteria, isolating a bacterial strain that was so severe to make a more effective vaccine, and their cleverness in combining shots.
“These three women made that DTP (diptheria, tetanus, and pertussis) shot possible here in our community by overcoming barriers,” he said.
Jo Ellyn Clarey, president of the Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council, said her group and others began advocating in 2015 for Legends to honor the researchers. However, she said the council has been highlighting their pioneering research since the 1980s.
“Our efforts have uncovered a much broader race history than we knew that was there,” she said.
“Loney Clinton Gordon isn’t standing out there by herself. She is representative of the inclusion efforts Kendrick and Eldering were making in their lab.”
Henrene Sheffey, an African American, was hired by Eldering in the 1950s to work in her lab. Her daughter, Harriet Singleton, attended the event.
“She saw Dr. Eldering as a pioneer and someone who inspired and encouraged women,’’ said Singleton, whose mother was a medical technologist.
She said Eldering was hiring and training African Americans during an era when many did not. She also referenced Dr. Douglas Posey, of Texas, another African American colleague of Eldering, who she hired as a microbiologist trainee in the 1960s.
Posey’s sister, Bettye Posey, attended the dedication.
The Grand Rapids Community Legends Project honors individuals who shaped the culture of and helped build our community. The mission of the project, launched in 2008, is to recognize influential figures throughout the history of Grand Rapids and inspire others with their stories.
Charlie Secchia, chair of the GRCL Committee, said the goal is produce a total of 25 sculptors.
The women stand seven feet high in the sculpture that contains 1,400 pounds of bronze and took one year to complete. The cost of the project was not released.