As early as the ninth century, a Persian doctor wrote about measles. In 1757, Dr. Francis Home, a Scottish doctor, demonstrated that measles is caused by an infectious agent in the blood.

Measles became a nationally notifiable disease in the United States in 1912, requiring doctors and laboratories to report all diagnosed cases. An average of 6,000 measles-related deaths were reported per year from 1912 to 1922. In the first half of the 20th century, nearly all children got measles.

Encephalitis (swelling of the brain) was a possible side effect of measles. Other symptoms included high fever, cough, runny nose, red, watery eyes, tiny white spots inside the mouth, red rash, usually beginning at the head.

A black and white photograph male toddler seated in a diaper with red spots all over his skin from measles.

Male toddler with measles, circa 1950s. National Library of Medicine

In 1954, Dr. John Enders and Dr. Thomas C. Peebles collected blood samples from ill students during a measles outbreak in Boston, hoping to isolate the virus and create a vaccine. The successfully isolated the virus from 13-year-old David Edmonston’s blood.

From 1961–1962 the National Institutes of Health (NIH) conducted vaccine trials in West Africa. The study was conducted by Dr. Harry Meyer Jr., Chief of  the Section on General Virology in the Laboratory of Virology and Rickettsiology in the Division of Biologics Standards (DBS), Dr. Daniel Hostetler, Jr., and Barbara Bernheim, who spent 6 months in the Republic of Upper Volta in West Africa. They used the live attenuated Edmonston strain measles vaccine developed by Dr. John Enders at Harvard University. The NIH team and the eight 3-member Voltan teams that they trained together vaccinated more than 731,000 children between the ages of seven months and four years.

Two men and one woman seated at a desk in a laboratory, wearing white lab coats and looking at papers on the desk.

Dr. Harry M. Meyer, Jr., at left, Dr. Daniel Hostetler center, and Barbara Bernheim at right, all members of the team who went to the Upper Volta for measles vaccination trials.  National Library of Medicine
In 1963, Dr. John Enders and colleagues, who had transformed the Edmonston-B strain of the measles virus to a vaccine, got it licensed in the United States.

An improved and weaker measles vaccine, created by Maurice Hilleman and colleagues in 1968, began to be distributed in the United States. This vaccine was called the Edmonston-Enders (formerly Moraten) strain and has been the only vaccine used in the United States since.

The measles vaccine is usually combined with the mumps and rubella vaccines (MMR) and sometimes with the varicella vaccine (MMRV).

Measles research at the NIH was in the Laboratory of Virology and Rickettsiology in Building 29, but the entire lab moved to Building 29A in 1967 when the annex opened.

Black poster with red and white text saying it's a cheap shot. MMR. And the results save millions.
A white poster with a map of the United States with measles written across it and a red circle with a slash through it. Text below says keep measles a memory. Immunize.
Posters for measles vaccines National Library of Medicine