From farm boy to vaccine king

Ray Cavanaugh explores the life of the hugely important but curiously unsung biomedical scientist Maurice Hilleman

The Biologist 66(5) p34-35

Described as history’s “most successful vaccinologist”, Maurice Hilleman might have saved more lives than any other 20th-century scientist. However, few people in the general public have heard of this man who developed some 40 vaccines for such diseases as hepatitis A and B, measles, mumps and rubella.

For someone who accomplished so much, Hilleman’s background was decidedly inauspicious. When he was born, a century ago in August 1919 in Montana USA, his twin died immediately, and his mother died two days later. Her final wish was that her son would be raised by his uncle, who lived nearby, so Hilleman spent his youth on the family farm.

A dedicated student, Hilleman showed a pronounced interest in the sciences, even in high school. However, he was not considering college, as he did not think he could afford it – growing up poor, he was accustomed to being unable to afford things. At age 18 he was working in a local J C Penney department store and assumed he would pursue a career in retail, but his eldest brother disrupted this trajectory by suggesting college and informing him about available scholarships for students to attend Montana State College (now Montana State University).

Young Hilleman was the archetypal student for whom such scholarships exist. During his freshman year he was spending weekends in the laboratory. Majoring in both chemistry and microbiology, he graduated at the top of his class in 1941. In 1944 he obtained his PhD in microbiology from the University of Chicago. His doctoral work was on chlamydia, which people previously believed was caused by a virus. Hilleman’s dissertation showed that this sexually transmitted disease was, in fact, caused by a bacterium. The implication was that chlamydia could be treated with antibiotics.

Although professors at the University of Chicago wanted Hilleman to pursue an academic track, the newly minted PhD chose to work for E R Squibb & Sons (now Bristol-Myers Squibb). Soon after joining the company he designed a vaccine to combat Japanese B encephalitis, which had been the bane of many Allied soldiers fighting in the Pacific in the Second World War.

Over the following decade Hilleman headed the Department of Respiratory Diseases at the Army Medical Center (now the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research). There he observed the genetic changes (known as ‘shift and drift’) that result from mutation in the influenza virus.

In 1957, when an outbreak of a new influenza strain surfaced in Hong Kong, Hilleman suspected a significant genetic shift and recognised the potential for massive fatality. So he requested influenza specimens from Hong Kong and then isolated the virulent new viral strain. The former farm boy then insisted that American breeders keep roosters that would otherwise be slaughtered so that they could fertilise enough eggs to prepare doses of influenza for the harvesting of a vaccine, as related by Hilleman’s New York Times obituary. His efforts led to the preparation and distribution of 40 million Hong Kong-specific flu vaccinations. Ultimately, the pandemic claimed around 70,000 US lives. However, without Hilleman’s insight and assertiveness, the US death count may have been six digits rather than five.

On the viral front line

At the end of 1957 Hilleman joined Merck & Co where he led the company’s virus and cell biology research department. He would spend the majority of his career at Merck developing most of his vaccines. Among them include his MMR vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella (the first instance of a successful combination vaccine), along with his hepatitis B vaccine – the first instance of a vaccine that could block a cancer (hepatoma) in humans.

Hilleman, who knew hard work from an early age, was the type of workaholic who expected others to share his condition. Any work ethic less than first-class was unacceptable. His manner was direct and unabashedly unpolished. When aggravated, he might launch into profanity-laced speech that sounded more like a football coach’s locker room tirade than the sentiments of an elite scientist.

Paul A Offit’s biography on Hilleman, Vaccinated: One Man’s Quest to Defeat the World’s Deadliest Diseases, relates how Hilleman’s office contained a row of miniature shrunken heads made by one of his daughters; each shrunken head represented an employee he had terminated. When his company requested that he attend a ‘charm school’, he essentially refused. Almost any other employee would have been fired for such non-compliance, but Hilleman had become untouchable. One might assume he realised it.

For all the impact of his work, however, his name has remained curiously obscure. Even in his home state of Montana, the mention of his name is likely to draw nothing more than a blank look, as stated in an article on the Montana State University website. This lack of celebrity never seemed to bother Hilleman, who instead remained focused on the viral battlefront.

Although his name never became anywhere near as famous as that of Jonas Salk, developer of the polio vaccine, Hilleman’s achievements elicited the highest esteem of his colleagues. He received the National Medal of Science in 1988 and eight years later the World Health Organization presented him with a lifetime achievement award.

Until the end of his life, Hilleman continued his vaccine quest and remained a vigilant viral watchdog, particularly as such mass killers as AIDS became a worldwide problem. His total corpus of work not only saved many millions of lives, but also prevented countless cases of disability.

Hilleman died on 11 April 2005 at the age of 85. He was survived by his two daughters and his second wife (his first wife died in 1962). At the time of his death he had personally developed eight of the 14 vaccines commonly recommended in the US.

The fulfilment of Maurice Hilleman’s potential went exponentially beyond the improvement of his own life. What a brilliant idea it was when his older brother suggested he go to college.

Ray Cavanaugh is a freelance writer based in the Massachusetts, US.