Cautionary Tales – The Fan Who Infected a Movie Star

7th May, 2021

A moment of selfishness by a sick fan wrecked the lives of a Hollywood star and her family.

German measles is a minor illness for most people – but for unborn children it can be devastating. In 1943 – when the link was only just becoming clear – a young US marine decided to break rubella quarantine to meet the movie star Gene Tierney. The marine was sick… and Gene was pregnant.

The appalling consequences of that meeting tell us much about how our thoughtlessness can harm those around us – but the kind of tragedy that befell Tierney and her daughter can be averted if we appeal to the better parts of human nature.

Cautionary Tales is written by me, Tim Harford, with Andrew Wright. It is produced by Ryan Dilley and Marilyn Rust.

The sound design and original music is the work of Pascal Wyse. Julia Barton edited the scripts.

Thanks to the team at Pushkin Industries, Mia Lobel, Jacob Weisberg, Heather Fain, Jon Schnaars, Carly Migliori, Eric Sandler, Emily Rostek, Maggie Taylor, Daniella Lakhan and Maya Koenig.

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Further reading and listening

Gene Tierney tells her story in her own words in Self Portrait
Norman McAllister Gregg’s paper in the Transactions of the Ophthamological Society of Australia is entitled Congenital cataract following German measles in the mother.
Brady Sluder’s story was covered in media including the Huffington Post. The Danish mask-wearing study was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine
The survey on white-collar presenteeism was commissioned by Accountemps. The costs of presenteeism versus absenteeism are explored in EHS Today. The BBC reported on the UK local government’s “pushy parent” school attendance campaign.
Adam Grant and David Hofmann’s study is called It’s Not All About Me : Motivating Hand Hygiene Among Health Care Professionals by Focusing on Patients. The research on blood donors in Bosnia is published as How Effective are Reminders and Frames in Incentivizing Blood Donations? Altruism as a vaccine persuasion strategy is covered in Using Behavioral Insights to Increase Vaccination Policy Effectiveness.
The history of rubella vaccination in the UK is covered in a publication by Public Health England.

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