Maurice Ralph Hilleman, 85, whose vaccines probably saved more lives than any scientist in the past century, and whose research helps the medical establishment predict and prepare for upcoming flu seasons, died April 11 of cancer at Chestnut Hill Hospital in Philadelphia.
Dr. Hilleman created eight of the 14 most commonly used vaccines, including those for mumps, measles, chicken pox, pneumonia, meningitis, rubella and many other infectious diseases. He developed more than three dozen vaccines, more than any other scientist. His measles vaccine alone is estimated to prevent 1 million deaths worldwide every year.
Maurice Hilleman developed more vaccines than any other scientist. His measles vaccine is estimated to prevent 1 million deaths every year.
(Merck & Co.)
"Among scientists, he is a legend. But to the general public, he is the world's best kept secret," said Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. "I think, without hyperbole, he as an individual has had a more positive impact on the health of the world than any other scientist, any other vaccinologist, in history."
A scientist of uncommon versatility, Dr. Hilleman made significant contributions in both the laboratory and the clinic. His work is credited by scientists for virtually wiping out many of the dreaded and deadly childhood diseases that remained common just 40 years ago. He also figured out how to combine the shots for measles, mumps and rubella into one shot, followed by a booster, an advance welcomed by needle-averse children.
Fauci described Dr. Hilleman as both impatient and careful. "He had this irreverent, no-nonsense, let's-get-it-done attitude that perfectly complemented a highly sophisticated intellect."
Dr. Hilleman also pioneered the development of vaccines against hepatitis A and hepatitis B. In addition to his creation of nearly 40 vaccines, Dr. Hilleman discovered several viruses and discovered the genetic changes that occur when the influenza virus mutates, known as shift and drift.
That helped him in 1957, when he worked at Washington's Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, to recognize that an outbreak of flu in Hong Kong could become a huge pandemic. Working on a hunch for nine 14-hour days, he and a colleague found that it was a new strain of flu that could kill millions. He notified authorities. Forty million doses of vaccines were prepared and distributed and, although 69,000 Americans died, the United States dodged an even more deadly outbreak.
"Once the problem is defined and the facts are known, decision and action are little more than the implementation of the obvious," Dr. Hilleman once said.
He also created the world's first licensed vaccine against a viral cancer, which blocked Marek's disease, a lymphoma of chickens. That revolutionized the poultry industry.
Dr. Hilleman was a native of Miles City, Mont., an isolated high plains town best known then and now for its annual rodeo and sale of half-wild bucking horses. His mother died in childbirth, as did his twin sister, and he was raised with his seven siblings on a relative's farm, he told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1999. He credited his success to his early exposure to chickens, whose eggs are used to weaken live viruses and create vaccines.
He discovered Darwin in eighth grade and was caught reading "The Origin of the Species" in church. He almost did not attend college for lack of money, until his eldest brother interceded. He graduated from Montana State University on a scholarship and then won a fellowship to the University of Chicago, where he received his doctoral degree in microbiology in 1941.
Dr. Hilleman joined E.R. Squibb & Sons and developed a vaccine against Japanese B encephalitis, which threatened American troops in the Pacific theater during World War II. He moved to Walter Reed in 1948 and stayed there as chief of respiratory disease until 1957, when he joined what is now known as Merck & Co. His official retirement was in 1984, although he kept an office and continued working there for many more years.
In an oft-told story, one of his daughters contracted mumps in 1963, just before he was to leave on an overseas trip. He took a culture from her throat, immersed the swabs in beef broth and took them to the laboratory freezer in the middle of the night. He later used the specimen to isolate the mumps virus, grow it in the cells of chicken embryos and produce a very weak version of the virus, enough to trigger the body's defenses and immunize whoever took the vaccine. He named it the Jeryl Lynn strain, after that daughter.
He is survived by his wife of 41 years, Lorraine Hilleman; two daughters; two brothers; and five grandchildren.
He told a videographer for Children's Hospital of Philadelphia that he was most proud of his work controlling infectious diseases in children, the combined MMR shot and the hepatitis vaccines.
"Well, looking back on one's lifetime, you say, 'Gee, what have I done -- have I done enough for the world to justify having been here?' That's a big worry -- to people from Montana, at least. And I would say I'm kind of pleased about all this," he said. "I would do it over again because there's great joy in being useful, and that's the satisfaction that you get out of it. Other than that, it's the quest of science and winning a battle over these damn bugs."