Measles: A Global History
Measles is caused by a notably stable virus and has been vaccine preventable since the 1960s,
following commercialization of the first effective measles vaccine in the U.S. But after the first
several years—and then decades—of measles vaccination, U.S. medical and public health experts
began to remark on how distinctly vaccination was changing measles's epidemiology, altering
the geographic, racial, age, and income groups most and least affected by the disease. This oft-
made observation, however, overlooked measles' long history. Extant for thousands of years,
measles had always been shaped by the times and places in which it made its appearance.
Urbanization, colonization, trade, war, schooling patterns, treatment, and other social, cultural,
political, scientific, and economic factors shaped and reshaped measles over and over, changing
it from epidemic to endemic to eliminated and back again, from “severe” to “mild” and vice
versa, and from a universal scourge to a commonplace feature of childhood. In the era of
modern biomedicine, measles has repeatedly been described as one of the deadliest and most
contagious diseases, as well as one of the most eradicable—a scientific belief resting on
assumptions about measles' stability that are in fact a small part of its centuries-long story.
This project will construct a global history of measles by following the disease from medieval
Islamic clinical descriptions to contemporary battles over its elimination. The project has three
specific aims. First, it will produce the first book on the global history of measles, with a focus on
how conceptions and perceptions of measles rooted in space and time have long made measles
both a stable and dynamic illness. Second, it will analyze measles' historical roles in the
emergence and development of what is now called global health. Third, it will examine and
elucidate measles' practical and symbolic historical significance in efforts to manage other
infectious diseases over time, from smallpox to COVID. The book will be published by Polity
Press and written for an audience of academics, policymakers, advocates, and the public.
Research methods for this historical project include both secondary source synthesis and
primary source location and analysis. The project draws on a broad secondary literature on the
histories of infectious disease, epidemics, medicine, and global health. Its primary source base
consists of evidence from databases of periodicals, government reports, and scientific papers;
digitally accessible documents, archives, and manuscript collections; and brick-and-mortar
archival collections. These range from Index Medicus to the African Online Digital Library and
from the records of the U.S. CDC to the archives of the WHO.