The legacy of Dr. Maurice Hilleman

He saved millions from death and disease

Created date

June 13th, 2018
Dr. Maurice Hilleman, who developed 9 of the 14 recommended childhood vaccines.

Dr. Maurice Hilleman developed 9 of the 14 recommended childhood vaccines.

In the wee hours of March 21, 1963, Dr. Maurice Hilleman, a single father who lived outside of Philadelphia, awoke to find his five-year-old daughter Jeryl Lynn by his bedside complaining of a sore throat. Touching his daughter’s face and neck, Dr. Hilleman instantly recognized the telltale symptoms of mumps.

He tucked his daughter back into bed and asked their housekeeper to keep an eye on her.

Hilleman drove 20 minutes to his office at Merck Labs to retrieve materials he typically used as the head of the pharmaceutical company’s virus and cell biology research department. He wanted to take a proper culture of Jeryl Lynn’s throat.

He returned home and awakened Jeryl Lynn just long enough to swab her throat and immerse the swab into a special dish or culture that would allow Jeryl Lynn’s virus to grow. Then he drove back to his office and placed the culture in his laboratory freezer.

In 1967, the original sample taken from Jeryl Lynn Hilleman’s throat became the basis for the newly approved mumps vaccination known as the Jeryl Lynn strain. It saved millions of people from contracting mumps, a disease that can have serious lifelong complications. The Jeryl Lynn strain is still in use today.

To create a vaccine that saves millions of people from suffering is an achievement many scientists dream of. For Hilleman, it was just the beginning. Over the next 30 years, Hilleman went on to develop more than 20 vaccines, including 9 of the 14 vaccinations now routinely recommended for children.

Hilleman’s mumps vaccine was later combined with his vaccines for measles and rubella and called the MMR vaccine. In addition, Hilleman developed vaccines for hepatitis A, hepatitis B, chickenpox, meningitis, pneumonia, and Haemophilus influenza type B, or Hib.

Early years

Maurice Hilleman was born at his family’s home in Miles City, Mont., in 1919. Within hours of his birth, both his twin sister and his mother died.

Considering the circumstances of his birth, Hilleman told Paul A. Offit, M.D., author of Hilleman, Vaccinated: Triumph, Controversy, and an Uncertain Future (Smithsonian, 2007), “I always felt like I cheated death.”

Growing up on his father’s farm, Hilleman spent his childhood days doing chores and tending to the chickens.

Hilleman told Offit that his firsthand knowledge of chickens helped him succeed later in life since fertile chicken eggs were used to grow viruses for vaccines.

Stopping a pandemic

Hilleman earned a full scholarship to Montana State University. Majoring in chemistry and microbiology, he graduated first in his class.

He went on to graduate school, earning his doctorate in microbiology from the University of Chicago in 1944.

As chief of the Department of Respiratory Diseases at Army Medical Center (known today as Walter Reed Army Institute of Research), Hilleman studied pandemics. He was able to recognize patterns in the type and severity of pandemics, to the point where he predicted with stunning accuracy when they would hit.

When Hilleman and a colleague saw signs of an impending flu pandemic spreading through Hong Kong in 1957, they were determined to stop it.

Racing against the clock, the men oversaw the production of 40 million vaccines that were quickly distributed in the U.S. About 69,000 Americans died from the flu, but experts say the toll would have been far worse without the vaccines. Hilleman received the Distinguished Service Award for his work.

A terrible blow

Over the course of his career, Hilleman earned numerous prestigious awards, but surprisingly, he never earned a Nobel Prize, though most of his peers believed he deserved one.

In 1998, toward the end of his illustrious career, Hilleman suffered a significant blow after the British medical journal The Lancet published a study by Dr. Andrew Wakefield alleging that Hilleman’s MMR vaccine was responsible for the autism epidemic.

Instead of accolades and awards, Hilleman started receiving hate mail and even death threats from anguished parents convinced that his vaccines had harmed their children.

Numerous studies went on to disprove Wakefield’s theory. In 2010, British medical authorities banned Wakefield from practicing medicine after his research was declared fraudulent.

The Lancet retracted the original article, but it came too late for Hilleman. He died in 2005.

Most successful vaccinologist in history

For a man who accomplished so much, he is surprisingly unknown to the general public. His friends say Hilleman lacked the ego that better-known scientists of his generation had.

His work was never about personal glory. Hilleman’s goal was simply to prevent every viral and bacterial disease that commonly hurt or killed children. While he didn’t meet that goal, he did come close.

Among the medical and scientific community, Hilleman is considered a superstar.

Biomedical researcher Dr. Robert Gallo, best known as co-discoverer of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), says, “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.”

Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, part of the National Institutes of Health, says, “Dr. Maurice Hilleman was perhaps the single most influential public health figure of the twentieth century when you consider the millions of lives saved and the countless people who were spared suffering because of his work.”