Pertussis, or whooping cough, is an acute infectious disease caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis. Outbreaks were first described in written records in the 16th century by Guillaume de Baillou in France. 

Pertussis has an incubation period of seven to ten days. Symptoms in the early stages include running nose, sneezing, low-grade fever, and a mild cough. Symptoms in the middle stage include bursts of numerous, rapid coughs, due to difficulty expelling thick mucus, accompanied by a high-pitched whooping sound. Vomiting and exhaustion can follow the coughing episodes. In the third or convalescent stage of pertussis, symptoms include gradual recovery, with fewer coughing episodes until they disappear. However, rapid coughing bursts often recur with subsequent respiratory infections for many months after the onset of pertussis. Pertussis can be deadly for infants, due to pertussis-related complications like bacterial pneumonia. Other complications for anyone with pertussis can include neurologic complications such as seizures and encephalopathy, and dehydration, anorexia, and middle ear infections.

Jules Bordet and Octave Gengou first isolated the organism in 1906. It was a very common childhood disease in the 20th century United States, with more than 200,000 cases reported annually. Pertussis had a high rate of mortality, especially for infants. The whole-cell pertussis vaccine became widely available in the United States in the 1940s, although it was first licensed in 1914. It was crudely made and had limited use until the 1940s, because of reports of serious side effects including death.

a poster with an image of a mother and child that reads whooping cough (pertussis) is back and describes symptoms and prevention

Poster from Washington State Department of Health from 1986 explaining symptoms of whooping cough and vaccinations schedule.  National Library of Medicine

At the National Institutes for Health (NIH), Dr. Margaret Pittman developed a new assay to test the potency of pertussis vaccines in 1944, and by 1949, manufacturers were able to sell vaccine certified to be potent and sterile. She helped set the first national and international standards for the production of the vaccine. 

In 1948, pertussis became available in a combined vaccine (DTP) with diphtheria and tetanus toxoids. 

Image of a vaccine box  North American Vaccine, Inc. Diphtheria and Tetanus Toxoids and Acellular Pertussis Vaccine from 1990s.

Combined DTP vaccine. North American Vaccine, Inc. Diphtheria and Tetanus Toxoids and Acellular Pertussis Vaccine from 1990s. Research by Dr. Pittman and staff at DBS led to advances in the pertussis vaccine. This vaccine was developed by Dr. Ronald Sekura, formerly of NICHD, and Dr. John Robbins, formerly of the FDA Bureau of Biologics (successor to DBS) and chief of NICHD’s Laboratory of Developmental and Molecular Immunity and their colleagues.  Office of NIH History and Stetten Museum

a yellow poster with a pink flamingo and pink text reading Whooping cough is not a bird it's a disease, asking if kids are immunized and encouraging vaccination

Poster from Ohio Department of Health encouraging vaccination against whooping cough. National Library of Medicine