In 1941, Norman A. Gregg (1892-1966) in his private practice in Sydney, Australia, overheard two mothers in his waiting room discuss the fact that each had had German measles in early pregnancy and that each of their infants had been later born with dense cataracts. Gregg then found that this was true of 12 of the 13 mothers who had brought their infants to him for the same reason. He promptly sent a questionnaire to all the ophthalmologists in eastern Australia and found their experience to be similar. In October 1941 Gregg reported that 68 of the mothers of 78 infants with congenital cataract had had rubella in the first trimester. Many of the infants also had congenital heart defects. Soon deafness and a high infant mortality rate were also noted. After initial skepticism, large studies in academic centers around the world confirmed the danger of the viral infection in the susceptible mother. Gregg’s alertness and determination established the need for a vaccine for an infection that up to then had been considered an innocuous minor illness. It also showed that the placenta was not the infallible guardian of pregnancy that it had been previously thought to be. A second world-wide rubella epidemic, together with the thalidomide tragedy in the 1960s, powerfully brought this home once more. By 1970 an effective vaccine against rubella was in wide use.
Submitted by Frank J. Martin, via the Cogan Ophthalmic History Society