Congenital rubella syndrome (CRS) can occur in children whose mothers contracted the rubella virus, sometimes called German measles, during pregnancy. Depending on the gestational period when the mother contracts rubella, an infant born with CRS may be unaffected by the virus or it may have severe developmental defects. The most severe effects of the virus on fetal development occur when the mother contracts rubella between conception and the first trimester. Defects from maternal rubella in the first trimester are included in the term congenital rubella syndrome, but physicians and researchers specifically refer to those defects as rubella embryopathy. Developmental defects are less severe if the mother contracts rubella in the second trimester, and they are generally negligible if the infection occurs in the third trimester. Prenatal rubella infection can cause birth defects which include deafness, compromised vision, abnormal heart development, and damage to the central nervous system which can lead to compromised cognition and learning disabilities.

Julia Bell worked in twentieth-century Britain, discovered Fragile X Syndrome, and helped find heritable elements of other developmental and genetic disorders. Bell also wrote much of the five volume Treasury of Human Inheritance, a collection about genetics and genetic disorders. Bell researched until late in life, authoring an original research article on the effects of the rubella virus of fetal development (Congenital Rubella Syndrome) at the age of 80.

In Australia in the 1940s, Norman McAlister Gregg observed a connection between pregnant women who contracted the rubella virus, or German measles, and cataract formation in their children's eyes. Gregg published his findings in the 1941 article Congenital Cataract following German Measles in the Mother in Transactions of the Ophthalmological Society of Australia. In the article, Gregg analyzed seventy-eight cases of congenital cataracts and suggested that the mothers' environmental factors could cause birth defects, otherwise known as teratogenic effects. Gregg's paper on the teratogenic effects of an environmental agent, the rubella virus, changed the study of birth defects to include viruses as potential causes or teratogens.

In the US during the late 1960s, Stanley Alan Plotkin, John D. Farquhar, Michael Katz, and Fritz Buser isolated a strain of the infectious disease rubella and developed a rubella vaccine with a weakened, or attenuated, version of the virus strain. Rubella, also called German measles, is a highly contagious disease caused by the rubella virus that generally causes mild rashes and fever. However, in pregnant women, rubella infections can lead to developmental defects in their fetuses. Plotkin and his collaborators weakened a strain of rubella, called RA 27/3, by growing the virus in WI-38 cells, a strain of human embryonic cells developed at the Wistar Institute by Leonard Hayflick in the early 1960s. Their research led to the development of a rubella vaccine, which prevented rubella in children and congenital rubella syndrome in the fetuses of pregnant women who had contracted rubella.

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