Who was Maurice Hilleman?

Who was Maurice Hilleman, and why should you care? If you were fortunate enough to escape childhood diseases that once plagued humans before today’s widely available vaccinations, you should thank this industrious scientist. His work has probably saved more lives than any other medical researcher!

Dr. Hilleman was a microbiologist who developed over three dozen vaccines – more than anyone else in history. Most likely over half the vaccines you received as a child and into your adult life were developed by Dr. Hilleman.

They include:

  • Measles
  • Mumps
  • Hepatitis A
  • Hepatitis B (Dr. Hilleman considered this vaccine his best work)
  • Varicella (Chickenpox)
  • Meningitis
  • Pneumonia
  • Haemophilus influenzae

We all take for granted that childhood deaths are not common in more developed countries due to communicable illnesses, but before childhood vaccines were developed, parents lived in fear that every time their children became sick it was because of one of these often fatal diseases.

Because of his contribution to the field, Merck’s North Carolina vaccine manufacturing facility is named after Maurice Hilleman. Much of his work was done at Merck & Co.

The American Society for Microbiology has an award in honor Maurice Hilleman, and it will be given at their annual meeting held this month in San Francisco, CA. The award is for major contributions to pathogenesis, vaccine discovery, vaccine development and/or control of vaccine-preventable diseases. Past winners include Albert Z. Kapikian, Samuel Katz, and Stanley Plotkin. Dr. Kapikian developed a disease against rotavirus, the most common cause of severe diarrhea in infants. In the very young diarrhea can lead to dehydration, and ultimately death. Dr. Katz is co-creator of the measles vaccine. Dr. Plotkin has developed many vaccines of which the most widely used is the one against Rubella.

There is a fascinating biography of Dr. Hilleman called Vaccinated: One Man’s Quest to Defeat the World’s Deadliest Diseases written by Dr. Paul Offit. For anyone interested in how great a development vaccines have been and the impact they’ve made on modern society, this book is a must read. It’s also very entertaining as Dr. Hilleman was a rather colorful character in his everyday dealings with colleagues, subordinates, and anyone he thought performed inferior work.