How the measles vaccine was invented, and why it was so important


Note: This article may feature affiliate links, and purchases made may earn us a commission at no extra cost to you. Find out more here.


This first newspaper article appeared in 1965, shortly after the introduction of the measles vaccine, when the new treatment was still somewhat unknown.

Measles highly contagious, and it can be dangerous: Vaccine recommended (1965)

by Demont Roseman Jr – Altoona Mirror (Pennsylvania) March 17, 1965

Chapel Hill, NC — “She was terribly sick for four or five days, and she missed school for about two weeks. I remember on her worst day she couldn’t move at all — she couldn’t lift her hands or her head and she was too weak to swallow. She was completely prostrate.”

In these words, Mrs M E Wall of Chapel Hill recalled the near-tragic case of measles which struck her 1st grade daughter, Martha. Contrary to widespread belief, measles is not a mild disease.

“The thing I remember most,” Mrs Wall continued, “was three weeks after the measles. It was a mysterious thing. I got a call from school that Martha couldn’t see. The teacher had put some large numbers on the blackboard and Martha couldn’t read them.”

Martha, who was 6-1/2 years old at the time, was rushed to a physician and then hospitalized “for all kinds of tests.”

Measles vaccine 1966 (2)

“We feared brain damage because of the high fever during the measles,” Mrs Wall remembers. “Martha had some peripheral vision, but for all purposes, her vision was gone.”

Martha was in the hospital for 10 days. She returned home with no improvement in her condition.

“We were pretty well resigned to having a child who would never read,” Mrs Wall said. “She could get around the house, so we felt she had some light perception. But we knew she had very little vision left.”

Much to the surprise of the attending physicians, Martha’s vision began to return gradually to normal over the next two months. Her recovery from what had been labeled as optic neuritis and as measles encephalitis is still unexplained.

Martha’s near disaster, although it occurred shortly before the measles vaccine was made available, is retold to emphasize the danger of this highly contagious and common disease. Partially because too many parents view measles too lightly and consider it a mild disease, there will be 4 million cases in the US this year.

MORE: 1918’s Spanish flu: A dark history of the deadly influenza pandemic 100 years ago

Measles vaccine child's painting - 1965

The let ’em-catch-it-and-build-up-an-immunity-to-it theory is hazardous. It’s been outmoded by the development of a reliable measles vaccine.

Dr John H Arnold, a specialist in children’s diseases at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, says that mild cases of measles “just don’t happen.” The threat of complications is always present.

“The most feared complication,” he believes, “is damage to the nervous system from encephalitis.” Encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) strikes about one in every 2500 measles victims — and is fatal for one-third of those with such complications.

The “real measles” — known variously as rubeola, red measles and “the 10-day measles that last two weeks” — can be followed by respiratory illnesses, with pneumonia the most common.

Measles is a sinister disease because some of the damage it causes may be hidden. Brain wave recordings made routinely of a group of hospitalized children with the measles showed that more than half of the recordings were abnormal. This means, Dr Arnold explains, “there’s a lot of central nervous system damage (from measles) we haven’t known about.”

ALSO SEE: Salk’s polio vaccine was such a huge medical advance, it made front page headlines in 1955

Brain wave patterns for children who have had the measles vaccine have been normal, a finding Dr Arnold considers a testimonial to the safety of the vaccine.

A live attenuated measles-virus vaccine, first tested in 1958, was licensed last year. Experience so far indicate that it is from 97 to 99 percent effective in preventing the disease.

1956 Cashbox - Dear Santa Measles song

Measles vaccine Q&A from 1965

How long will the vaccine provide immunity?

“So far as we know now, it is good for a lifetime — but we have no definite proof yet,” Dr Arnold says. “We may find later that a booster will be necessary every five or 10 years.”

How is the vaccine given?

It is given in as two injections at one sitting. One injection is a dose of the measles vaccine and the other injection is a dose of gamma globulin which “knock the top off any reaction to the vaccine.”

The vaccine actually puts a living measles virus into the patient. This virus multiplies and causes antibodies to form against the disease. A mild reaction of fever and a rash occurring six or seven days after the injections signifies a good “take.”

Measles vaccine 1966 (1)

Who should take the vaccine?

“Anyone over 9 months of age who hasn’t had measles previously,” recommends Dr Arnold, “but with these exceptions — pregnant women; children with malignant diseases such as leukemia; patients taking steroids or X-ray treatments; persons with allergies to eggs and egg-containing foods; or anyone with a severe disease-causing fever.”

Generally, a physician will not give the measles vaccine at the same time another live vaccine (such as polio, smallpox or yellow fever) is given.

At the present time, children with tuberculosis do not get the measles vaccine, but this practice may be changed in the future.

What does the measles vaccine cost?

Usually $10 or less.

When is the measles season?

Usually from January to June, but sporadic cases can occur at any time.

The history of the measles vaccine & Dr John Franklin Enders (1976)

By Richard Knox, The Boston Globe (Boston, Massachusetts) Feb 10, 1976

The Children’s Hospital Medical Center rededicated its new research facility, naming it the John Franklin Enders Research Building to honor the man whose work led directly to the development of polio vaccine and indirectly to many of the major advances since the 1950s in the booming science of virology.

Enders, who shared the 1954 Nobel Prize in medicine (at his insistence) with his two young research fellows, Drs. Frederick C. Robbins and Thomas Weller, has spent his entire career in the immediate vicinity of the research tower on Longwood avenue that now bears his name.

The Nobel Prize recognized the teams’ work in devising, in 1949, a method to grow poliovirus in tissue cultures from monkey kidneys and aborted human fetuses. Until then, no one had been able to induce the deadly virus to multiply in the laboratory, a crucial first step in developing a vaccine.

Dr. Jonas Salk seized on Ender’s work to develop the first killed-virus polio vaccine that was ready for field trials by 1954 — a year when polio struck 30,000 Americans. There were setbacks because the killed-virus vaccine caused crippling polio in some of those early vaccinees, but the tide against the disease was turned.

By 1961, a vaccine made with weakened live poliovirus had been achieved by Dr. Albert Sabin and was ready for mass distribution.

“Many people would feel that the isolation of that virus, its culture (i.e., the ability to grow it in a test-tube), the making of a vaccine and the essential disappearance of that disease is probably the greatest single advance of American medical science in this century,” Dr. Francis D. Moore, surgeon-in-chief at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital and author of a Bicentennial history of medicine, commented in a recent interview.

“You’d have a hard time finding anything to compete with it,” he said.

In addition to his landmark work with polio virus, Prof. Enders’ further study of viruses led to effective and now widely used vaccines against measles, rubella (German measles) and mumps.

Moreover, his methods of tissue culture opened paths to countless experiments in virology that have helped transform the field into a flourishing branch of biology — a means of access to the most fundamental questions in genetics as well as one of the most intense areas of cancer research.

MORE: How Louis Pasteur created the first rabies vaccine (1885)

Born in 1897 to a wealthy Hartford family, Enders aimed for an academic career in English literature. At the age of 30, after two years of work on his English dissertation at Harvard, he discovered a German scholar had already written the definitive thesis on his topic. At that point, he happened to meet, at a students’ boardinghouse in Brookline, an Australian microbiologist named Hugh Kingsley Ward.

Out of his friendship with Ward grew the young Enders’s fascination with microbiology. Ward introduced him to Hans Zinser of Harvard, one of the most respected scientists of the era, and before long, Enders had switched from English to bacteriology. He received his PhD from Harvard in 1930.

Since then Enders has been associated continuously with Harvard, rising to full professor of bacteriology and immunology in 1956 and university professor in 1962. Since 1947, he has been chief of the research division in infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital.

PS: If you liked this article, please share it! You can also get our free newsletter, follow us on Facebook & Pinterest. Thanks for visiting and for supporting a small business! 🤩 


You might also like...

The fun never ends:

Comments on this story

Leave a comment here!

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.