Rubella is a contagious viral infection best known by its distinctive red rash.

From 1964–1965 there was a rubella epidemic in the United States and subsequently there were 11,000 stillbirths, miscarriages, and abortions, and at least 20,000 congenitally infected infants called “rubella babies.”

Dr. Paul D. Parkman isolated the rubella virus using samples from U.S. military personnel while he worked at Walter Reed. Dr. Harry M. Meyer, Jr., and Dr. Paul D. Parkman experimented with killed virus vaccine and live attenuated virus vaccines. The Parkman-Meyer research team tamed the rubella virus by subjecting it over a two-year period to 77 passages in primary African green monkey kidney cell cultures.  Drs. Meyer and Parkman developed the first licensed rubella virus vaccine while working at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Division of Biologics Standards (DBS). 

Two men in lab coats examine a bottle labelled Rubella

Dr. Meyer at left and Dr. Parkman at right with the Rubella vaccine.
Human trials began at the Arkansas Children’s Colony in 1965. Their vaccine was available beginning in 1966. Once proven safe, very quickly the vaccine was licensed by pharma companies (the first commercial vaccine was in 1969, based on the weakened virus by Parkman and Meyers). Pharmaceutical company, Merck, was also involved in developing a rubella vaccine.

Drs. Parkman, Meyer, and George L. Stewart, and Hope Hopps, Barbara Meyer, Robert D. Douglas, and Judith P. Hamilton were part of the team who developed a better blood test (rubella hemagglutination-inhibition immunity test) to screen people for rubella antibodies in 1967. By 1970, it was available for use in laboratories and hospitals throughout the United States. The rubella hemagglutination-inhibition immunity test was patented in 1971. The test employs the biological principle of hemagglutination, or red blood cell clumping. Special preparations of rubella virus cause the red blood cells of newly hatched chicks to clump. When a sample of blood from a person who is immune to rubella is added, the antibodies inhibit clumping. Thus, the inhibition of agglutination demonstrates the presence of antibody and immunity. The rubella hemagglutination-inhibition immunity test was used to ascertain whether expectant mothers who have been exposed to rubella have cause for concern or are immune and at no risk. It was also used in testing for rubella susceptibility in women of child-bearing age.

Three people in lab coats engaged in conducting research

Rubella lab in Building 29, Dr. Harry M. Meyer top left, Hope Hopps, top right, and Dr. Paul Parkman seated.
The combined rubella vaccine with measles and mumps vaccines (MMR) was first available in 1971 by Merck, which is how the rubella vaccine is typically administered today in the United States (combined with the mumps and measles vaccines [MMR]) and sometimes with the varicella (chickenpox) vaccine (known as MMRV).

Rubella research at the NIH was in the Division of Biologics Standards (DBS)) Laboratory of Virology and Rickettsiology in Building 29, on the second and third floors, but the entire lab moved to Building 29A, second and third floors in 1967 when the annex opened.

The National Library of Medicine at the NIH created an online exhibition about rubella in 2019. More information is also available there,

Three people in lab coats examine a monkey

Dr. Meyer, left, lab technician Rudyard Wallace at center, and Dr. Parkman at right with a monkey, a participant in the developmental work on the new attenuated rubella HPV-77 virus strain at NIH.

a poster rendered in a popular German Artist aesthetic from the turn of the century that lists the dates and times of a rubella screening  for women of childbearing age

Mid-20th Century Poster for Rubella Screening Program.

An image of  a Mary Cassatt painting with a motherly looking figure in a chair with a young girl leaning on her in an indoor setting reads Rubella is a preventable disease. And worth preventing. ask your physician for further details.

Rubella Poster with Mary Cassatt painting of mother and child.

(All Rubella Photos/Images are from National Library of Medicine)