Bordetella pertussis was first discovered in 1900 by two Belgian scientists, Jules Bordet and Octave Gengou. However, the bacterium was named solely after Bordet. Bordet studied in Brussels and in 1892, graduated as a Doctor of Medicine. Bordet had extensive knowledge on bacteriology as well as immunology. Early in his studies, he worked with antimicrobic sera. Later, Bordet and Gengou found a bacterium in a 5-month-old child afflicted with pertussis, or whooping cough. The bacterium that they observed showed similarities to Haemophilus influenzae but differed morphologically. As a result, they concluded that it was a separate bacterium and that it was responsible for whooping cough, which Guillaume de Baillou described in 1578.
When studying Bordetella pertussis, the two scientists had to create a unique medium for the bacterium to grow on as it could not be isolated on a typical agar plate. They were able to isolate the first pertussis bacillus from Bordet’s son, Paul, who had whooping cough. Bordet and Gengou studied the microbe that they had isolated and described their observations and findings in their paper “Le microbe de la coqueluche’ which translates to ‘the cough microbe’. Bordetella pertussis is quite aptly named considering Bordet’s contribution to its discovery and the fact that “pertussis’ means ‘violent cough’, a term coined in 1670 by English physician Thomas Sydenham.
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