Gazette Article by: Jane Lord
Appeared in the Gazette: Summer 1998
Pertussis, commonly known as whooping cough, was the greatest killer of infants in the United States before a Winnetka pediatrician developed a vaccine to prevent the contagious respiratory infection.
The pediatrician was Louis Wendlin Sauer. Born in Cincinnati in 1885, Sauer studied medicine at the University of Berlin, received a M.D. degree from Rush Medical College, interned at Children’s Memorial Hospital, and earned a Ph.D. in pathology from the University of Chicago. His first pediatrics practice was in Winnetka.
Whooping cough takes its name from the high-pitched “whoop” sound that occurs with an indrawn breath at the end of coughing spasms. Whooping cough’s convulsive seizures can lead to serious complications such as brain damage, lung problems, cerebral hemorrhage, and epileptic attacks.
In 1923 cases of whooping cough in Winnetka had reached a near-epidemic level. Police nailed quarantine signs on the doors of homes where known cases occurred, and public health officials warned that any violation of quarantine would be prosecuted.
In 1924 Sauer worked at the Whooping Cough Hospital in Vienna and the Pasteur Institute in Brussels with the doctor who had discovered the whooping cough bacillus in 1906. The following year Sauer returned to the United States with a supply of the bacilli and began the research that led to development of the vaccine.
A tiny frame cottage on the grounds of Evanston Hospital served as his laboratory during the early stage of research. Sauer worked there with the assistance of one technician while continuing his large pediatrics practice. Later his research facilities moved to the hospital’s Abbott Laboratory Building, supported by grants from Eli Lilly and Parke, Davis pharmaceutical companies.
As a result of Sauer’s research, the whooping cough vaccine was perfected in 1929. In 1931 tests of the vaccine began in the Evanston Health Department’s immunization clinics, at the Evanston adoption agency, the Cradle, and St. Vincent’s Hospital in Chicago—where Sauer was medical director. In 1934 the vaccine became available to the general public. Four years later Sauer developed the DPT vaccine for diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus.
During a medical career that spanned more than 50 years, Sauer was president of the Chicago Pediatrics Society, chief of pediatrics at Evanston Hospital, and a professor at Northwestern University Medical School. He also authored two books on child care and wrote a monthly column for a national PTA publication. Sauer is honored with a brass plaque mounted on a prominent wall at Evanston Hospital that describes him as one of the institution’s most respected physicians.
Sauer and his family lived in Winnetka at the northwest corner of Sheridan Road and Cherry Street. Even with a heavy agenda of professional responsibilities, he made time for growing roses and 22 varieties of orchids and enjoyed horseback riding, backgammon, and bridge.
Despite his outstanding contribution to mankind, Sauer never sought money for his discovery. “One doesn’t do that sort of thing for money,” he once remarked. Pronouncing the project finished, he closed his laboratory in 1953; by then the vaccine was accepted throughout the world.