Maurice Hilleman

Inventor of more than 40 vaccines

Pasteur achieved immortality for inventing rabies vaccine, and Sabin and Salk for inventing polio vaccine, but the world's most prolific and successful vaccine inventor was a modest and hence little-known scientist, Maurice Hilleman. In a career spanning over half a century, he invented over 40 vaccines, including those for mumps, chickenpox, measles, rubella, hepatitis A and B, meningitis, and countless variants of the flu virus.

Maurice Ralph Hilleman, virologist: born Miles City, Montana 30 August 1919; bacteriologist, University of Chicago 1942-44; virologist, E.R. Squibb & Sons 1944-48; microbiologist, then Chief of Respiratory Diseases, Walter Reed Army Medical Center 1949-57; Director of Virus and Cell Biology Research, then Director, Merck Institute of Therapeutic Research 1957-84; married 1943 Thelma Mason (died 1962; two daughters), 1963 Lorraine Witmer; died Philadelphia 11 April 2005.

Pasteur achieved immortality for inventing rabies vaccine, and Sabin and Salk for inventing polio vaccine, but the world's most prolific and successful vaccine inventor was a modest and hence little-known scientist, Maurice Hilleman. In a career spanning over half a century, he invented over 40 vaccines, including those for mumps, chickenpox, measles, rubella, hepatitis A and B, meningitis, and countless variants of the flu virus.

Most of the vaccines routinely given to children were developed by him, and these have all but eradicated what were once fatal diseases of childhood in developed countries. He also overcame immunological obstacles so that vaccines such as measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) could be given together in one shot.

His vaccine for the 1957 flu virus prevented it from becoming a repeat of the horrific 1918 flu pandemic, which had killed 20 million people around the world. His hepatitis B vaccine, developed with volunteers from the gay community in New York, is routinely given to all health-care workers and other at-risk groups. The now- standard mumps virus is called Jeryl Lynn, and was developed from a strain of the disease Hilleman isolated from his elder daughter when she was five, and named after her.

One of Hilleman's goals was to produce the first vaccine against any cancer, and he achieved this in the 1970s with a vaccine against Marek's disease, which causes lymphoma in chickens, and caused massive economic damage in the poultry industry.

He was a co-discoverer of several viruses, including the hepatitis A virus, the rhinoviruses that cause colds, and SV40, a monkey virus that was inadvertently included in some of the earliest batches of polio vaccines, and which caused deaths.

In the early 1950s, at the start of his career, Hilleman made a crucial discovery about the way flu viruses evolve. The phenomenon is called drift (minor changes) and shift (major changes). Detecting recent changes and predicting future changes is part of the art of choosing the strains of virus included in each season's vaccines. People's immune systems give them partial protection against drift, but not against shift, which is why completely new flu strains are so dangerous.

Hilleman detected the shift that caused the 1957 flu pandemic after reading a report in the New York Times about flu in infants in Hong Kong that had escaped worldwide surveillance systems. He sent to Hong Kong for specimens, isolated the virus and developed the vaccine. As part of this, he insisted that chicken breeders spared the lives of cockerels that would otherwise have been slaughtered, so that they could fertilise the millions of eggs needed to prepare the new vaccine.

Hilleman was six-foot-one tall, with "raccoon eyes", reading glasses on the end of his nose, and would say - but not do - outrageous things. But, as handsome is as handsome does, he was a deeply moral man. Under his guidance, Merck, the pharmaceutical company where he worked from 1957 until 1984, avoided making whooping cough and polio vaccines, which had huge safety problems, but he pushed them into making other vaccines, even in periods of low profitability.

Hilleman was born in rural Montana in 1919. His mother and twin sister died when he was born, and he was raised, along with seven older brothers and sisters, by relatives. The family were farmers, and Hilleman's familiarity with handling chickens was to stand him in good stead as a vaccine producer, as many vaccines were, and still are, raised in hens' eggs. The family were fundamentalist Lutheran Christians, although Hilleman himself later rejected religion. He was educated at Custer County High School near Little Bighorn, where Custer made his last stand.

After leaving school Hilleman worked in the local JC Penney chain store, advising "cowpokes who wanted to buy chenille dressing gowns for their girlfriends", but later his family sent him to Montana State College in Bozeman, where he graduated as Bachelor of Science.

During two years at the University of Chicago, he produced a doctoral thesis on chlamydia. He then joined the drug company E.R. Squibb & Sons, where he immediately developed a vaccine against Japanese B encephalitis to protect US troops during the Second World War.

His vaccine work was done at Squibb, at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where he spend a decade, and from 1957 at the Merck pharmaceutical company's research institute at West Point, Pennsylvania, where he spent the rest of his career. It was at Merck that he developed the first measles vaccine. It was initially too dangerous to use, but he patiently attenuated it until it was safe.

He continued researching and lecturing after his retirement in 1984, and was an adviser to the World Health Organisation, the American Vaccine programme, and other public health groups.

Caroline Richmond

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