In light of the reemergence of pertussis (whooping cough), the pioneering research of Pearl Kendrick and Grace Eldering is worth revisiting. In the 1930s, working in the Michigan Department of Health laboratory in Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA, they began researching a pertussis vaccine. Their research offers an instructive case study of the creative public health research performed in state health department laboratories during the interwar years. State department of health laboratory directors actively promoted research by supporting advanced education; making facilities and funding available for individual projects; and, when possible, procuring new facilities. Using Michigan Department of Health resources and local and federal funding, Kendrick and Eldering developed standardized diagnostic tools; modified and improved extant vaccines; conducted the first successful, large-scale, controlled clinical trial of pertussis vaccine; and participated in international efforts to standardize and disseminate the vaccine. Their model may again offer a promising avenue for groundbreaking research.