This doctor has saved tens of millions of lives, yet few know his name

dr Hilleman, microbe hunter, pioneering virologist and leading vaccinologist of the 20th century, is considered the father of modern vaccines. His mission was to save children, which he did millions of times over by eradicating common childhood diseases. He was responsible for the development of more than 40 vaccines, including those against measles, mumps, hepatitis B, meningitis, pneumonia, Haemophilus influenzae bacteria and rubella. Measles vaccination alone has prevented about a million deaths.

At the end of his career, Dr. Hilleman prevented a pandemic flu combining measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccines and developed the first vaccine against a type of human cancer. Among other things, he managed to isolate many viruses, including the hepatitis A vaccine. Hilleman worked with many associates in academic centers and industry management, leading his research and development team to achieve world-changing achievements. Through his work, he may have saved more lives than any other scientist in history.

Unlike Jonas Salk, Hilleman was largely unknown to the general public. Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NAID), said Hilleman had “little merit for self-credit” and that his contributions were “the lay public’s best-kept secret.” If you look at the whole field of vaccinology, no one has been more influential.”

Difficult childhood in Montana

Hilleman’s interest in microbiology and science had roots in his childhood. Born in 1919, he grew up on a farm in Miles City, Montana, during the Great Depression. Tragically, his mother died two days after he was born and Hilleman was raised by his uncle while his father struggled to raise his eight children in difficult circumstances on the family farm.

Young Hilleman in Montana

Hilleman graduated from high school in 1937, in the midst of the Great Depression. As a poor farm boy with no prospects or means, he took jobs in local shops and, despite working hard, had little opportunity to further his education. Eventually, Hilleman applied for a full scholarship to Montana State University, graduating at the age of 21 with a combined degree in chemistry and microbiology, at the top of his class. He was offered scholarships to 10 universities and chose the University of Chicago for postgraduate studies in microbiology, where he lived in deplorable conditions despite scholarships. He received his doctorate in 1944 with an award-winning dissertation on chlamydia.

Despite pressure from academics to join them, the hard-nosed, impatient genius was determined to create something useful and translate it into clinical use.

After graduating, Hilleman decided to work in the pharmaceutical industry. He accepted a job at ER Squibb & Sons and immediately began researching vaccine development. He developed a vaccine against Japanese B encephalitis, which was badly needed to immunize troops on the Pacific front during World War II.

The Asian flu

In 1948, Hilleman joined Walter Reed Army Medical Center as chief of the respiratory disease division, where he was tasked with studying respiratory diseases of military importance and developing a science and strategy for dealing with influenza. Hilleman led the development of the Asian flu vaccine in 1957. The life-threatening flu spread across China, with 20,000 cases reported in Hong Kong. Hilleman, still a microbiologist at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, suspected this could become a pandemic threat and coined the term Asian flu. He found that most people lacked antibody protection to this new virus.

He initiated vaccine production by sending virus samples to manufacturers and asking them to develop a vaccine within four months, produce 40 million doses of vaccine, and thereby contain the US epidemic that caused an estimated 70,000 deaths in the United States. From 1957 to 1958, about two million people died from the Asian flu worldwide.

Father of modern vaccines

In 1957, at the age of 38, Hilleman was recruited by the pharmaceutical company Merck & Company of West Point, Pennsylvania to head its viral and vaccine research programs for the next 47 years and to head the Merck Institute for Vaccinology for another 20 years . after his compulsory retirement from Merck Research Labs in 1984 at the age of 65. Here, from the 1950s through the 1990s, Hilleman and his team developed more than 40 experimental and licensed vaccines for humans and animals, including protection against measles, mumps, chickenpox, rubella, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, pneumococcal pneumonia, meningitis, pandemic Influenza and Chlamydia.

Despite, and perhaps because of, early personal tragedy and poverty, he developed his passion and pursued his extraordinary destiny: saving children.

In 1968, Hilleman was actively involved in the development of a vaccine against the Hong Kong flu pandemic. Due to the continuing threat of annual influenza epidemics, the World Health Organization (WHO) developed new pandemic guidelines in 2005 to improve pandemic preparedness plans in collaboration with vaccine manufacturers and national health authorities, particularly in view of the need for faster development and Vaccine dissemination Influenza vaccines.

For much of his 60 year career he has been involved in all facets of pharmaceuticals from research to market. Hilleman believed that scientists had a responsibility to produce a return on knowledge gained in the laboratory. He was a fighter who took on industry and government bureaucracies. He argued that it is politics, not science, that determines which breakthroughs are brought to market.

Hilleman’s working style was iconoclastic. In 1963, when his daughter had the classic symptoms of mumps, he wiped a swab from his daughter’s throat, took it to the laboratory for culture, and in 1967 there was a vaccine. Today’s rules would rule that out.

after dr Hilleman’s departure from Merck in 1984 served as an advisor and mentor to those working to control infectious diseases around the world. In 1988, President Ronald Regan awarded him the National Medal of Science, the highest scientific honor in the United States. Hilleman has received many other honors, including a lifetime achievement award from the WHO.

It is estimated that the work of Dr. Hilleman will save about eight million lives each year.

Colleagues note that Dr. Hilleman was always more interested in preventing disease than being recognized for his efforts. Many people know Dr. Hilleman’s name isn’t, though his work has directly impacted her life. His work is estimated to save about eight million lives each year.

Despite, and perhaps because of, early personal tragedy and poverty, he developed his passion and pursued his extraordinary destiny: saving children.

dr Hilleman died of cancer in 2005 at the age of 85. The next time your doctor gives your child a vaccine to protect against mumps or measles, remember the name Dr. Maurice Hilleman.

Next week we’ll take a closer look at Dr. Samuel Katz, an Albert B. Sabin Gold Medalist and world-renowned advocatete of life-saving vaccines.

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