“If I had to name a person who has done more for the benefit of human health, with less recognition than anyone else, it would be Maurice Hilleman. Maurice should be recognized as the most successful vaccinologist in history.” ~ Robert Gallo (Co-Discoverer of the AIDS Virus)
Dr. Maurice Hilleman came from humble beginnings to have an incredible impact on human medicine. He is credited with developing innovative vaccines throughout his lifetime, used to save millions of lives every year.
The eighth child of Gustave and Anna Hilleman was born on August 30, 1919, in Miles City, Montana. His twin sister was stillborn, and his mother passed away two days after giving birth. Her dying wish was to have Maurice raised by his aunt and uncle, Bob and Edith. The couple, who lived nearby on the same family farm and didn't have children, adopted Hilleman.
After graduating high school in 1937, Hilleman took jobs in local stores. Mired in the Great Depression, he was more concerned about making money than advancing his education. An elder brother inspired him to continue his education. A full-ride scholarship enabled Hilleman to attend Montana State University. At age 21, he graduated top of his class with a joint degree in microbiology and chemistry.
Hilleman wanted to go on to medical school but couldn't afford the tuition. He applied to ten graduate schools, and each offered him a full scholarship to attend. Hilleman chose the University of Chicago, the school at the top of his list, to study microbiology.
On December 31, 1943, he married Thelma Mason back in Miles City, Montana. The following year, he earned his Ph.D. in microbiology. The university was one of many to offer him post-graduation professorships with the opportunity to focus on research. Dr. Hilleman, however, was dissatisfied with the pace of academia and took a job with the New Jersey pharmaceutical company E. R. Squibb & Sons.
While with the company, Dr. Hilleman learned how to mass-produce the influenza vaccine.
In the late spring of 1948, he moved to Washington, D.C., to become the chief of the Department of Respiratory Diseases for the Walter Reed Medical Center. While there, Dr. Hilleman was assigned to study respiratory diseases with military significance and influenza outbreaks. He became a leader in understanding the mutation of influenza viruses.
Dr. Hilleman proved they undergo mutations that allow them to bypass antibodies previously developed to the strain. These changes explained why the influenza vaccine didn't protect a person for life.
Frontier life during the Great Depression had molded Dr. Hilleman into a workaholic. Believing science was vital to society, he immersed himself in the sciences—often working seven days a week. Dr. Hilleman felt he'd escaped an appointment with death as a newborn and wanted to ensure other children could do the same.
In the spring of 1957, he and his colleagues worked nine days straight to isolate the virus strain of the Asian Flue, which was used to create forty million vaccine doses. Dr. Hilleman had seen the effects of the virus in Hong Kong and believed it could become a global pandemic in the United States that would kill millions of Americans if left unchecked.
In 1957, he and his colleagues worked nine days straight to isolate the virus strain of the Asian flu, which was used to create forty million vaccine doses. He'd witnessed the effects of the virus in Hong Kong, believing that if left unchecked, it could become a global pandemic that would kill millions of Americans.
Because of the work of Dr. Hilleman and his team, the number of deaths in the United States due to the virus was limited to 70,000. Without their efforts, the death toll could have been in the millions. Dr. Hilleman received the Distinguished Service Medal from the U.S. Army for his work.
His daughter, Jeryl Lynn, was born in Washington D.C. on September 27, 1957. A few months later, on New Year's Eve, Dr. Hilleman was recruited by West Point, Philadelphia's Merck & Company, to lead its virus and vaccination programs.
Thelma Hilleman lost her battle with cancer on November 7, 1962. On August 3, 1963, he wed Lorraine Whitmer. The couple had a child, a little girl named Kirsten, in 1965.
In the early morning of March 1963, five-year-old Jeryl Lynn complained to her father that her throat hurt. It was mumps. After putting his daughter back to bed, Dr. Hilleman drove to his lab and grabbed the equipment necessary to swab her throat.
By 1967, he and his team had developed a vaccine for mumps. Merck licensed the 'Jeryl Lynn' strain, named after Dr. Hilleman's daughter, as the first effective vaccine for the virus. Today, the vaccine remains part of the MMR vaccine administered around the globe. Dr. Hilleman also created the MMR vaccine.
He retired from Merck in 1984, later returning as a consultant. While with the company, Dr. Hilleman discovered new vaccines that protected people from measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox, hepatitis B, meningitis, and pneumonia. Due in no small part to his vaccines, people today live roughly thirty years longer than they did a century ago.
Dr. Hilleman refused to revel in his successes. He kept a list of illnesses he wanted to eradicate in his pocket, and moved on to the next challenge as soon as he discovered a vaccine. There was no slowing down. His goal was to eradicate disease and make the world a safer place for children.
In 1988, President Ronald Reagan awarded him the National Medal of Science.
Despite a gruff exterior, he was a personable man, always willing to share credit. Dr. Hilleman only cared about improving children's lives, and he wouldn't let people or politics impede his goal. The work was all that mattered.
Dr. Hilleman succumbed to cancer on April 11, 2005. He was 85.
Throughout his long career, Dr. Maurice Hilleman had incredible results. He was directly involved in discovering nine of the fourteen routinely recommended pediatric vaccines, and has been credited with saving more lives than any other 20th-century scientist.
- Altman, Lawrence K. “Maurice Hilleman, Master in Creating Vaccines, Dies at 85.” The New York Times — Breaking News, US News, World News and Videos. Last modified April 12, 2005. https://www.nytimes.com/2005/04/12/us/maurice-hilleman-master-in-creating-vaccines-dies-at-85.html.
- Combs, Sydney. “Virologist Maurice Hilleman Saved Millions of Children — and Stopped a 1957 Pandemic.” National Geographic. Last modified May 29, 2020. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/virologist-maurice-hilleman-saved-millions-children-stopped-pandemic.
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