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The Amazing Maurice Hilleman

by Guy McCardle

August 8, 2011

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Donate If someone asked you who is responsible for saving the most lives in the 20th century, who would you name? My money would be on Maurice Hilleman. He was an American microbiologist who specialized in vaccinology and developed more than three dozen vaccines during his career. His work was key to helping to extend human life expectancy and improving the economies of many countries. Of the fourteen vaccines routinely recommended in current vaccine schedules, he developed eight: those for measles, mumps, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, chickenpox, meningitis, pneumonia and Haemophilus influenzae bacteria. Dr. Hilleman died in 2005 at the age of 85.

Despite Hilleman's many breakthroughs in immunology and vaccinology, he has never been a household name. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Hilleman had “little use for self-credit.” Dr Fauci states that Hilleman's contributions were “the best kept secret among the lay public. If you look at the whole field of vaccinology, nobody was more influential.”

Hilleman was raised on a farm during the Great Depression and attended religious services at a fundamentalist Lutheran church. When he was in the eighth grade he brought some trouble upon himself when he was caught reading a copy of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species in church. In 1944 he was awarded a Ph.D. in microbiology and chemistry from the University of Chicago.

By all accounts Hilleman was a colorful man and he was said to have run his laboratories like a military unit where he was the one in command. He personally terminated every subordinate that did not measure up to his high standards. He is even said to have kept a collection of "shrunken heads" (fakes made by one of his children) as trophies that represented each of his fired employees. Hilleman was famous for his profanity laden tirades which he used to drive home the point of his arguments. While employed by Merck, he refused to attend a mandatory "charm school" course intended to make middle managers more civil. Despite, or perhaps because of these behaviors, his workers were fiercely loyal to him.

Hilleman's style of work was hard charging and no nonsense. In 1963 his young daughter was exhibiting classic symptoms of mumps. Hilleman swabbed the back of her throat, brought it to the lab to culture, and by 1967, there was a vaccine. You couldn't do that today. Regulations would never allow for it. He defended his pushy and prickly behavior, which offended some colleagues and coworkers, as crucial for science to advance. He argued that unfortunately politics, not science, determined which breakthroughs were brought to the marketplace.

Hilleman retired from Merck at age 65, but stayed on as a consultant. In 1988 he was awarded the National Medal of Science by President Reagan. This was his nation's highest honor for work in science. He went on to be honored with numerous other awards, including the lifetime achievement award from the World Health Organization.

After Hilleman's death in 2005 Ralph Nader wrote, "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 grade B actors, tells something about our society's and media's concepts of celebrity; much less of the heroic."

In 2007 Dr. Paul Offit, co-inventor of the rotavirus vaccine, wrote a biography of Hilleman entitled Vaccinated: One Man's Quest to Defeat the World's Deadliest Diseases. That is definitely next on my reading list. Hilleman often described himself as a renegade. I would add that he was a genius and should be a hero to all mankind.

by Guy McCardle

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