Dr. Maurice Hilleman – Uncelebrated Vaccine Hero Who Saved Millions

By Shlomo Maital

Dr. Maurice Hilleman – Saved Millions!

     Vaccines are front and center in the news these days; strangely, rumors and news and false news and half-truths about vaccines drive the stock market up and down.

   So perhaps it is worth recalling one of the world’s greatest vaccine innovators, Dr. Maurice Hilleman – thanks to a great piece in the New York Times, published a month ago and recently featured on the BBC. Hilleman, while working for Merck, was responsible for the measles mumps rubella (MMR) triple vaccine that has saved the lines of countless children. Here is the story:

     At 1 a.m. on March 21, 1963, an intense, irascible but modest Merck scientist named Maurice R. Hilleman was asleep at his home in the Philadelphia suburb of Lafayette Hill when his 5-year-old daughter, Jeryl Lynn, woke him with a sore throat. Dr. Hilleman felt the side of her face and then the telltale swelling beneath the jaw indicating mumps. He tucked her back into bed, about the only treatment anyone could offer at the time. For most children, mumps was a nuisance disease, nothing worse than a painful swelling of the salivary glands. But Dr. Hilleman knew that it could sometimes leave a child deaf or otherwise permanently impaired.   He quickly dressed and drove 20 minutes to pick up proper sampling equipment from his laboratory. Returning home, he woke Jeryl Lynn long enough to swab the back of her throat and immerse the specimen in a nutrient broth. Then he drove back to store it in the laboratory freezer.   The name Maurice Hilleman may not ring a bell. But today 95 percent of American children receive the M.M.R. — the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella that Dr. Hilleman invented, starting with the mumps strain he collected that night from his daughter.

We read endless stories of the US Federal government, UK government, and governments in China and Russia, throwing billions of dollars at pharmaceutical companies, buying in advance millions of doses of vaccines that are as yet unproven. And I think of Dr. Maurice Hilleman, one irascible physician and vaccine developer who saved more persons than any other scientist alive or dead.

It was by no means his only contribution. At Dr. Hilleman’s death in 2005, other researchers credited him with having saved more lives than any other scientist in the 20th century. Over his career, he devised or substantially improved more than 25 vaccines, including 9 of the 14 now routinely recommended for children. “One person did that!” said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, a longtime friend of Dr. Hilleman’s and now director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “Truly amazing.”

Is there a Maurice Hilleman out there, applying perseverance, creativity, wisdom, and, yes, opportunism (his daughter’s illness) to save the world?