The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The first measles vaccine was named after him. But he didn’t vaccinate his son.

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David Edmonston helped make medical history when he was just a boy. Doctors created the measles vaccine after swabbing his throat when he was sick and isolating the virus cultures for the first time. They called the new vaccine the Edmonston strain, and it helped eliminate the highly infectious disease from the United States.

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Now, more than 60 years later, measles is making an alarming comeback. More than 550 cases have been diagnosed in the United States this year — the second-highest number in nearly two decades. An outbreak among ultra-Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn prompted New York City to declare a public health emergency last week and order mandatory vaccinations. The disease is mostly spreading among communities where misconceptions persist about vaccine safety.

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Edmonston knows something about that. When it came time to vaccinate his own child, he and his wife chose not to do it.

Edmonston’s wife, who died in 2002, was a public health educator, he said, “so in matters of public health, I let her lead the way, because she had more information than I did. And she was one of the people opposed to having the vaccination.”

It isn’t clear what her objections were, since a now-disproved report linking vaccines to autism wasn’t published until 1998, and doctors would have recommended their son get a measles, mumps and rubella inoculation in the early 1980s.

“It was wrong, but I don’t think it was due to willful ignorance,” said Edmonston, 76, retired and living in Virginia.

Edmonston doesn’t remember much about his own measles. It was 1954, and the 11-year-old from Maryland was attending a boarding school outside Boston.

“It was pretty nasty, and I was pretty much out of it the whole time,” he said during an interview with The Washington Post. “So, my memories are a little vague.”

One things he remembers clearly, though, is a doctor coming to his bedside and asking him whether he would be willing “to be of service to mankind.” He told Edmonston he was working on a vaccine and asked whether he could take a blood sample and throat swab. Edmonston, along with a handful of other infected boys at the school, agreed.

Later in the school year, Edmonston said, the doctor and some colleagues returned with news: The sample he had provided was exactly what they were looking for, and with it, they were going to be able to develop a measles vaccine.

“He was kind of beaming about the thing,” Edmonston said. “They offered me a steak dinner, but I didn’t care for steak.”

The doctor was Harvard researcher Thomas C. Peebles, a recent medical school graduate who was working with famed physician John F. Enders. Enders had won a Nobel Prize after successfully growing the polio virus in tissue cultures — an integral step toward the development of the polio vaccine.

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At the time, nearly every child caught the measles before the age of 15, with an estimated 3 million to 4 million cases causing more than 400 deaths per year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Edmonston returned to Bethesda after one year at the boarding school. Nine years later, not long after he graduated from high school, the vaccine was finally ready to roll out to the public.

The effect was immediate. By 1968, annual reported measles cases were down to 22,231. The vaccine was eventually combined with the mumps and rubella vaccines into one shot known as the MMR. In 2000, measles was declared eliminated in the United States, meaning there had been an absence of the continuous disease transmission for more than 12 months.

Edmonston went on to a varied career as a draftsman, science teacher and owner of a construction company. He married and, in 1980, had one son, whom he now regrets not vaccinating against the measles. He declined to talk about other vaccinations.

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Edmonston understands that claims linking vaccines to autism or other conditions have been thoroughly disproved. He said he has suggested to his son, now in his 30s, that he get vaccinated.

Edmonston’s son did not respond to a request for comment.

Edmonston is proud of the small but integral role he played in bringing down measles rates around the world. He has been a member of the meditation group Science of Spirituality for decades, and “a large part of the of teaching I follow is that we should be of service to humanity.”

“So this has been a wonderful opportunity to … be of service to humanity with really very little effort on my part,” he said.

Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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