Thursday, February 10, 2011

Maurice Hilleman: Mister Vaccine

Great Advances in Science

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 virus that causes AIDS

Yet almost no one knew about him, saw him on television, or read about him in newspapers or magazines. His anonymity, in comparison with Madonna, Michael Jackson, Jose Canseco, or an assortment of Gade B actors, tells something about our society's and media's concepts of celebrity; much less of the heroic.

Ralph Nader, lawyer & consumer advocate

Maurice Hilleman [1919-2005]: An American microbiologist who specialized in vaccinology, Hilleman is credited with developing more than three dozen vaccines in his lifetime, including eight that are commonly used today as part of  a childhood vaccine schedule.
Photo Credit: Walter Reed Medical Center, Washington, DC, circa 1957, when Hilleman was chief of the Department of Respiratory Diseases, Army Medical Center (now the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research) from 1948 to 1958.
Source: U.S. National Library of Medicine:

Maurice Hilleman is not a name you will immediately recognize. Even so, his contributions to humanity in preventing diseases like measles, mumps, rubella and chickenpox are immense and easily recognizable. Hilleman, a microbiologist,  not only developed the vaccines for these diseases, but for many others as well: forty in all, in his more than fifty years of scientific achievement.

Eight of his vaccines are still used today part of the routine schedule of 14 vaccinations given to children, including for hepatitis A, hepatitis B and influenza type b. In the field of vaccinology, the development of vaccines, Hilleman is a giant. As Robert Gallo, co-discoverer of the HIV virus put it, "[Hilleman] is the most successful vaccinologist in history."

Hilleman worked seven days a week, but was always home for supper. Such was the dedication of the man to his work and his family. His thinking can be summed up as follows: science should be in service to humanity. Or to put it in economic terms, there should be a return on investment, but for humanity's benefit.

Many thoughtful people understand all too clearly that a healthy populous costs less to the government than a sick one. Vaccines are one of the best and simple ways to prevent a host of diseases. Such thinking highlights the importance of Hilleman's successful efforts.

His achievements came about through hard effort, no doubt, but also to a single-minded determination that often marks men with vision.  In an article in peer-reviewed British Medical Journal (BMJ), Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, said in an April 2005 article:
His commitment was to make something useful and convert it to clinical use. Maurice's genius was in developing vaccines, reliably reproducing them, and he was in charge of all pharmaceutical facets from research to the marketplace.
The goal was never far from Hilleman's sight, that something worthy would come from the laboratory research. As is often the case of visionaries, Hilleman's way of operating and working was unconventional, Dr Offit added in the same article:
"To give you an example of how he worked, in 1963, [when his daughter had the classic symptoms of the mumps,] he swabbed the back of his daughter's throat, brought it to the lab to culture, and by 1967, there was a vaccine.” He added, “Today's regulation would preclude that from happening... If Maurice was alive today, I doubt he would be able to be Maurice. He was a very strong willed person and a person like him could face a high level of inertia.
We are fortunate that Maurice Hilleman was able to be himself.  His childhood started off similar to many great scientific researchers—unimpressive and fraught with difficulty.

Early Lessons Imprinted for Life

Maurice Hilleman was born to Anna and Gustav Hilleman in Miles City, Montana, on August 30, 1919. The town could have been a locale for a Hollywood western movie, a rough-and-tumble frontier town bursting with cowboys, gamblers and barkeepers. He was the eighth child born to Hilleman. His mother and twin sister, however, did not survive his birth.

Gustav Hilleman, his father, was overwhelmed by the prospect of raising such a large family alone. Thus, he sent Maurice to his uncle Robert, who owned a nearby farm raising chickens and cattle. Those early years were formative ones for the young boy. It gave him the tenacity to overcome obstacles, among other things, says
The farm also served as his first laboratory, providing Hilleman with early lessons on biology and disease, life and death. He raised chickens, tended cattle, harvested hay and grew vegetables. Hilleman also helped with the family's side business—manufacturing horseradish and brooms, which were sold in town.
Life on a farm in an economically underdeveloped area of the western frontier during the Great Depression was not easy," Hilleman recalled in an article he wrote for Immunological Reviews. "But, it was of immense value in providing hands-on experience in the worlds of biology and mechanics, and in creating sobriety and an intensive work ethic that has proved highly useful.
In 1927 when Hilleman was eight, he almost died from diphtheria, a disease that would later be almost eradicated in the United States through immunization. Such lessons were instructive, as was his encounter in eighth grade with Charles Darwin's The Origin of  Species. Despite opposition from the Lutheran pastor of the church his family attended, the young Hilleman hung tough and  told the minister in no uncertain terms that he would continue his inquiry into science.

Hilleman: In his later years, circa 2000: Asked about his one-man pipeline approach, he said: "It takes somebody who's a bastard. I don't think there are basically any people at all left who would have the dedication."
This he did in incremental steps. For example, Hilleman listened to a radio station from Bismarck, North Dakota, which broadcast a Sunday afternoon show called Meet the Scientists, which originated at the University of Chicago.These initial encounters would  eventually develop into a long-term relationship with science.

After Hilleman graduated from Custer County High School in 1937, he took a retail job at the local J.C. Penney. College seemed out of reach for a poor farm boy. But after his older brother returned home on break from ministerial school, he interceded and and told the family they needed to find a way to send the intelligent Hilleman to college.

University and Industry

Fortunately, Hilleman received a scholarship to Montana State University, where he graduated first in his class with a bachelor's degree in chemistry and microbiology in 1941. He completed graduate work at the University of Chicago, receiving a doctorate in microbiology and virology in 1944. His dissertation was on the Chlamydia, proving that it is an unusually shaped bacterium was not a virus as had been thought.

No doubt, he was destined for great contributions to science. He took a career in industry over academia, which went against conventional thinking at the time, Hilleman says: 
"I was told ... 'We do not train people for industry,' so I said what the hell, that's exactly where I'm going."

And that he did, and rather successfully, the journal, Nature points out:
From Chicago, Hilleman went to E.R. Squibb and Sons in New Jersey in 1944, then to the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Washington in 1948, finally joining Merck in 1957. According to Adel Mahmoud, president of the Merck Vaccine Division, the company currently produces seven vaccines, all invented by Maurice Hilleman. "This guy, whatever he touched, he developed a vaccine out of it," says Mahmoud. "We owe him an incredible, incredible debt."
On December 31, 1957, Hilleman became director of Virus and Cell Biology Research for the Merck Institute for Therapeutic Research in West Point, Pennsylvania. It was at Merck that Hilleman made his greatest achievements. One of his great achievements before joining the pharmaceutical giant was at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Washington, essentially adverting a flu pandemic in 1957.

He did this by first reading about a report on influenza among infants in Hong Kong, The New York Times reports, and then doing some deductive reasoning:
Dr. Hilleman, who directed the central laboratory for worldwide military influenza surveillance, was sure that the cases represented the advent of an influenza pandemic. So he immediately sent for specimens from Hong Kong and helped isolate a new strain of influenza virus.

Dr. Hilleman also demanded that breeders keep roosters that would otherwise have been slaughtered so they could fertilize enough eggs to prepare 40 million doses of influenza to protect Americans against the 1957 influenza strain.
Maurice Hilleman is one of the heroes of science who helped make our world a better place. He received a numbers of honours, including being elected to US National Academy of Science, the Institute of Medicine, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan presented him with the National Medal of Science, the nation's highest scientific honor.

Yet, his name is fading into obscurity, a recent article in Nature says:
Very few people, even in the scientific community, are even remotely aware of the scope of what Maurice has contributed," Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, noted at the symposium. "I recently asked my post-docs whether they knew who had developed the measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis B and chickenpox vaccines. They had no idea," Fauci said. "When I told them that it was Maurice Hilleman, they said, 'Oh, you mean that grumpy guy who comes to all of the AIDS meetings?'
After retiring from Merck in 1984, Hilleman became Adjunct Professor of Pediatrics at the School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia.

Maurice Hilleman died of cancer at a hospital in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on April 11, 2005. He was 85.  He was survived by his second wife, Lorraine, a retired nurse, whom he married in 1963; and two daughters, Jeryl Lynn of Palo Alto, Calif., and Kirsten J. of New York City. (His first wife, Thelma Mason, preceded him in death in 1963.)

We need more people like Maurice Hilleman if we want to make real advances in science. Many articles cite his prickly personality. Even so, if you look at the history of dedicated scientists, not suffering fools gladly was a common trait they shared. He was actually a humble man, if you consider one salient fact: Hilleman didn't name any of the forty vaccines that he developed after himself. There is no Hilleman vaccine, but his legacy as a humanitarian is undeniable.


  1. Hilleman reminds me of Waldemar Haffkine, who deveoped vaccines against cholera and bubonic plague. Edythe Lutzker and Carol Jochnowitz (my wife) wrote about him in COMMENTARY, June 1980.
    There really is such a thing as progress. The world is a better place because of vaccines. As an old Chinese proverb says, Bu pa man; jiu pa zhen (Don't fear slow progress; just fear no progress).

  2. Dear Prof Jochnowitz:

    Thank you for your comments. Yes, I agree that we can progress in many ways, including medically and scientifically.

    I am working on an article on Waldemar Haffkine and his great work against the plague and cholera, notably in India. It should publish on Thursday the 17th of February.


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