The first inductee to the Montana BioScience Alliance Hall of Fame was Dr. Maurice Hilleman, a Montanan from Miles City whose vaccines have probably saved more lives than any scientist in the past century.
“Among scientists, he is a legend. But to the general public, he is the world’s best-kept secret,” noted 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.”
Dr. Hilleman created eight of the 14 most commonly used vaccines, including those for mumps, measles, chickenpox, pneumonia, meningitis, rubella, and many other infectious diseases. His measles vaccine alone is estimated to prevent 1 million deaths worldwide every year. 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.
A native of Miles City, he grew up on a relative’s farm with seven siblings and went on to graduate from Montana State University (MSU) in Bozeman and receive his doctoral degree in microbiology from the University of Chicago. Dr. Hilleman died in 2005 at the age of 85.
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 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. 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.
“Goddamnit, science has to produce something useful. That’s the payback to society for support of the enterprise.” – Dr. Maurice Hilleman