In recognition of the 50th anniversary of the first commercial available vaccine to prevent rubella, NLM launched the exhibition Rashes to Research: Scientists and Parents Confront the 1964 Rubella Epidemic on June 3rd. Ashley Bowen, PhD, is guest curator of Rashes to Research. Circulating Now interviewed her about her work on the exhibition.
Circulating Now: We heard from you on another subject not long ago, it’s nice to have you back. Will you tell us a little about your role in bringing the exhibition Rashes to Research to the public?
Ashley Bowen: This exhibition was really a labor of love. Medical historians may not admit it, but many (most) of us have a “favorite” epidemic. This isn’t to say that I’m happy that people suffered or died, just that some epidemics encapsulate themes that we like to talk about. For me, the 1964 rubella epidemic is an opportunity to think about several themes I care about: vaccination, women’s rights, popular culture, and disability.
As the exhibition’s guest curator, I got to be involved with many different phases of the exhibition’s development—from initial proposal to script writing to weighing in on design ideas. This is a fun role because I got to work with so many specialists inside and outside the library—archivist to web developers, preservation specialists to graphic designers.
CN: Circulating Now has published several pieces about vaccines but not previously about Rubella. What would you like people to know about the development of this vaccine?
AB: Rubella is such an interesting disease because for most people, most of the time it is very mild. Unlike other vaccine-preventable diseases, like smallpox or diphtheria, there’s comparatively little direct risk to the person who gets sick. Instead, rubella prevention is all about protecting other people. The people most seriously impacted by rubella are pregnant women who risk miscarriage or delivering children with congenital birth defects. Vaccination always protects the group by creating community (or herd) immunity, but the promotional materials for the rubella vaccine really drives home how vaccination is something we do for others as much as we do for ourselves.
CN: What aspect of the story did you find most compelling?
AB: I was fascinated by how American women in the 1960s tried to manage their risk from rubella in the years before the vaccine was available. Increasingly aware of the danger associated with rubella exposure, thanks to coverage in popular media, American women requested more control over their pregnancies and access to all their pregnancy options—including therapeutic abortion. During the 1964 epidemic, nearly a decade before the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, Life magazine discussed a woman’s decision to have an abortion after a rubella diagnosis as a responsible, if personally difficult, choice that a family might make.
CN: Did you have a lot of primary sources to work with for this project? Where did you find them? Was there one that was particularly informative?
AB: Because the rubella vaccine was developed here at the NIH, the National Library of Medicine, NIH History Office, and NIH Library have an extensive collection of items related to the scientists and laboratories that worked on it. I relied heavily on an oral history with Dr. Parkman conducted by the NIH History Office in 2005 and archived copies of the NIH Record held in the NLM’s collections and online.
On a more personal note, while working on the exhibition I had the opportunity to talk to many people about their memories of the rubella epidemic. Although these conversations didn’t make it into the final exhibition, they shaped my thinking about the impact of the epidemic. People told me about the elementary school gyms where they got vaccinated or their mothers talking to neighbors about who had rubella. One coworker brought me her rubella vaccination card, issued to her in New Jersey in May 1970. I even chatted with my own mother about her experience with the rubella vaccine.
CN: What will you take away from your work on this project?
AB: There’s so much to think about in this exhibition—women’s rights, medical ethics, scientific research, drug regulation, and more. Although it is tempting to think of this as a vaccine story, I think it’s just as much a social story. The vaccine was licensed after the epidemic unleashed major social and legal changes that did not stop as the threat of rubella decreased.
Working on this project really forced me to think about the dynamic and complex relationship between science, culture, and the law. Each area influenced the others. For example, in his oral history Dr. Parkman talks about how he and his team knew that women were struggling to make decisions about their pregnancies and that that knowledge motivated them to work hard on the vaccine. At the same time, families who could not wait for the development of a vaccine turned to the courts when they could not access therapeutic abortion after a maternal rubella diagnosis.
Explore the online exhibition Rashes to Research.
Visit the Library’s History of Medicine Division at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, where the exhibition will be on display until September 25, 2019. There you’ll see a special display of NLM collection items that focus on the NIH’s Division of Biologics Standards’, the research and regulatory body responsible for the development and licensing of the first commercially available rubella vaccine.