David was surprised to meet the doctor from Boston, who asked him politely for permission to take blood samples and throat swabs. David agreed, intrigued by the request and vaguely aware that the doctor was up to something important. Peebles took the samples and went away. Not long after that, the doctor returned to get more samples and to share some exciting news. He told David that he and his colleagues had identified the measles virus in his samples and that doctors were isolating it in order to develop a vaccine. They were confident it would work.
That was the last time David heard anything about Peebles’ and Enders’ research for several years, and as far as he knew, the story was over. David got better, and spring came to Fay. He threw himself into classes and activities, even winning third place in the Founders’ Day sack race. When the year was through, his parents brought him back to Bethesda to finish his schooling closer to home.
It had been a year of growth and learning at Fay, and his bout with the measles was just a small part of his tale.
Little did David know that his case of measles—and his fateful meeting with Dr. Peebles—were the starting points in a scientific discovery that changed the course of world history.
After Peebles identified the virus in David’s samples, Enders continued with the work. He grew a strain of measles— named the Edmonston-B strain, after David—that he developed into a measles vaccine. In 1961, The New York Times proclaimed the new vaccine “100% effective,” and in 1963, a licensed measles vaccine was introduced to the public.
David met the doctors one more time, in March, 1963, just after the launch of the new vaccine. CBS sent him a free ticket from Washington to New York in order to appear on a special news program hosted by the well-known anchor Charles Collingwood and featuring Dr. Peebles and Dr. Enders. David, who by then was in his late teens, was delighted with his whirlwind trip to New York and brief brush with fame, though a bit disappointed that the elegant hotel restaurant didn’t serve pizza.
In the following decades, the measles vaccine became a juggernaut. Millions of children and adults around the world have been inoculated since the vaccine’s creation, 52 years ago. In 2000, the United States declared that measles had been eliminated from this country (in this case, “eliminated” is defined as the absence of continuous disease transmission for 12 months or more in a specific geographic area).
While other effective measles strains have been developed in past years, many of those were derived from the Edmonston-B strain. According to the Centers for Disease Control, even today, a modified version of the strain, called the Edmonston-Enders strain, is the measles component of the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine that most American children receive.
Like the “immortal” Henrietta Lacks, whose cells have lived on in the HeLa cells found in every research lab, David Edmonston’s case of measles from the winter of 1954 was the beginning of a momentous story that continues today. All of us who were inoculated against the disease have a little bit of Fay in our blood.