Life-saving vaccine scientist’s 100th birthday celebrated

September 6, 2019 GMT
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File - In this April 18, 1957, file photo, Dr. Maurice Hilleman, left, Walter Reed army medical center, receives distinguished civilian service award from Secretary of Defense Wilson at the Pentagon. Montana State University is celebrating what would have been the 100th birthday of the scientist credited with saving millions of lives through the development of vaccines against measles, mumps and other diseases. Maurice Hilleman was born in Miles City in 1919, graduated from MSU in 1941 and died in 2005. The first Hilleman scholars are set to graduate from MSU this year. (AP Photo/File)
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File - In this April 18, 1957, file photo, Dr. Maurice Hilleman, left, Walter Reed army medical center, receives distinguished civilian service award from Secretary of Defense Wilson at the Pentagon. Montana State University is celebrating what would have been the 100th birthday of the scientist credited with saving millions of lives through the development of vaccines against measles, mumps and other diseases. Maurice Hilleman was born in Miles City in 1919, graduated from MSU in 1941 and died in 2005. The first Hilleman scholars are set to graduate from MSU this year. (AP Photo/File)

BOZEMAN, Mont. (AP) — It sounds like a fairy tale.

A poor boy, born in tragedy and raised by his aunt and uncle on a Montana farm, would grow up to become one of America’s greatest scientists, a wizard at developing vaccines, credited with saving 8 million children’s lives around the world each year.

Yet most people don’t even know his name.

Maurice Hilleman was born 100 years ago near Miles City on the high plains of eastern Montana. He would grow up to develop vaccines against measles, mumps, chickenpox, pneumonia, influenza, meningitis and hepatitis and other diseases.


Hilleman is credited with saving tens of millions of lives worldwide — more than any other scientist of the 20th century, the New York Times reported in 2005 when he died at age 85.

Ninety-five percent of American children today receive the MMR vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella that he developed. The vaccine has made those miserable childhood diseases — which caused rashes, fevers and swelling in most kids, but also caused some serious disabilities, deafness, birth defects and even death — seem like ancient history to many families.

“He couldn’t stand to see children suffer,” his widow, Lorraine Hilleman, 86, told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle during a recent visit from Palo Alto, California, to Bozeman. “He couldn’t stand to see adults suffer, either.”

“I think what drove him was this obsession to prevent every childhood disease,” said daughter Kirsten Hilleman, 54, a New York resident moving to Big Sky. Once he’d figured out one vaccine, he would tackle the next disease.

“It wasn’t like he stopped and basked in the glory of his success once he had a vaccine licensed,” she said. “He went immediately on to the next.”

Thanks to Hilleman’s vaccines, wrote biographer Paul Offit, today we live an average of 30 years longer than a century ago.

Montana State University has been celebrating the 100th anniversary of Hilleman’s birth and holding Hilleman up as an inspiration to today’s students.

Four years ago, MSU President Waded Cruzado created a new program to bring to campus each year 50 low-income Montana high school graduates, who might never have gone on to college otherwise, with the goal of surrounding them with lots of support so they can succeed.


The first Hilleman Scholars are set to graduate this school year.

“I think the hope is,” Kirsten said, “that you find the next Maurice Hilleman.”

Hard times

Maurice Hilleman was born near Miles City on Aug. 30, 1919.

His twin sister, Maureen, died in childbirth and his mother, Anna, died a few days later. The boy was the youngest of eight children.

On her deathbed, his mother asked that he be raised by his childless aunt and uncle, Edith and Bob, who lived on the farm next door.

Times were tough. His dad, Gustav, had to send some children as far away as Missouri.

Young Maurice grew up learning the farm lessons of hard work and how to take care of chickens.

“He said they were his best friends,” Lorraine said. His job was to clean the coop and collect eggs every morning, even in hailstorms.

From a nail in the chicken coop, Maurice got a scar on his forehead that he carried all his life.

“He always talked about being useful — as long as he could be useful,” his daughter said.

The award-winning 2016 documentary “Hilleman: A Perilous Quest to Save the World’s Children” says that Hilleman’s uncle was more open-minded, which likely allowed more room for Maurice’s curiosity to grow, but craving the approval of his biological father may have driven him to succeed.

Attending Custer County High School during the Depression, he must have been a bright student. Kirsten said when the physics teacher got sick and had to take a leave for treatment, he pointed at Maurice and said, ”‘You are going to teach the physics class.’

“He did,” she said. “He gave everyone an A.”

Maurice graduated in 1937 and was aiming for manager training at J.C. Penney’s store, the Times reported, where he helped cowpokes pick out chenille bathrobes for their girlfriends.

But his older brother Howard came home and asked Uncle Bob, ”‘Aren’t you going to send that kid to school?’”

Did he want to go? “Sure!” Maurice said.

They drove nearly 300 miles in a Model A to Bozeman and Montana State College, which gave Maurice a scholarship.

“He loved it here,” Lorraine said of the university. “He loved the freedom he had to pursue his interests in science.”

Debating whether to pursue chemistry or microbiology, he was influenced by the book, “Microbe Hunters.” And he flipped a coin.

“He would have been a good chemist,” Lorraine said. “We’re worlds better off for him being a microbiologist.”

Father of modern vaccines

Maurice graduated in 1941 at the top of his MSU class.

He was accepted into the microbiology Ph.D. program at the University of Chicago. Even with a scholarship, money was tight and the 6-foot-1 grad student survived on one meal a day, slipping to 138 pounds, according to MSU.

Ph.D. in hand, he joined the E.R. Squibb pharmaceutical company in 1944. There he developed his first vaccine, against Japanese encephalitis, to protect U.S. troops fighting in the Pacific during World War II.

Maurice invented vaccines based on the ideas of Louis Pasteur and other early scientists. The idea was to take a virus and weaken it — often by passing the virus through cells from chicken embryos — until it was too weak to cause the full-blown disease, but still potent enough to spark people’s immune systems to produce their own natural antibody defenses to fight off the disease.

In 1948 he started work for the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Washington, D.C., and did key research on influenza. He discovered the influenza virus would mutate in small ways each year, called drift. And sometimes the virus would mutate dramatically, called shift. That could create deadly pandemics because people had no immunity against the changed virus.

In 1957 he read a New York Times story about a widespread influenza outbreak in Hong Kong, and had a gut feeling it could be the next pandemic. At the Army lab he confirmed it was the same strain that caused a pandemic 67 years before, and against it only a few elderly people had immunity. He worked 14-hour days to develop a vaccine before the virus reached the United States, and 40 million doses were created to protect the American public.

Some 70,000 people died, but health officials said it could have been a million without the vaccine. The military awarded him the Distinguished Service Medal.

Maurice was then recruited by the Merck pharmaceutical company in Pennsylvania, where he would lead virus and vaccine research for 45 years, developing most of the 40 vaccines for which he and his team were credited.

A key year was 1963, when he was working to improve a measles vaccine, eliminating bad side effects of rashes and fevers. Measles then killed about 500 American children each year.

One night his 5-year-old daughter Jeryl Lynn then came down with the mumps. In most children mumps caused a painful swelling of the glands in the neck, but it could cause more serious effects. He swabbed her throat to collect the virus that became the basis of today’s mumps vaccine.

A year after his first wife’s death, Maurice met Lorraine in 1963. Lorraine, a nurse, was interviewing to work on vaccine clinical trials in collaboration with the children’s hospital.

“He was very personable, kind,” Lorraine recalled. “He asked me my age. I said I was 29. I found out later he was also interviewing me for a wife.” She laughed. “I got both jobs.”

In some ways they were opposites. He was the serious scientist, down to earth but very focused, and she was more easy-going.

By 1971 he was able to combine vaccines against measles, mumps and rubella to create today’s MMR vaccine. Instead of having to come in for a series of six shots, now children needed just two.

“MMR was one of his big breakthroughs, and hepatitis B,” Lorraine said. The hepatitis B vaccine was the first against a virus that causes cancer in people. “I consider those his two big breakthroughs.”

Other vaccine scientists became famous — Pasteur for the rabies vaccine, Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin for polio vaccines. But Maurice Hilleman never put his name on his inventions.

“He had no ego,” Kirsten said. “He was humble, modest.”

Maurice was always generous, sharing the credit with his whole team, Lorraine said.

“He worked all day, all weekends, too,” Lorraine said. Vacations were occasional treats. Once he took his family to Greece and England so the girls could see both an ancient and a modern civilization, she said. “He was a great teacher.”

In the lab, Maurice was often described as irascible and profane. He sometimes yelled at people working under him, but storms blew over quickly and he won their loyalty.

“I would say he was kind, a very caring person, a very good father and a very good husband,” Lorraine said. “He did use his Montana adjectives at times.”

“He would use his charm, too,” Kirsten said. “He’d call up — ‘Hello, is this the queen of the library?’ — and charm the librarian.”

One Christmas, Kirsten was delighted to receive a Vincent Price shrunken head kit, which showed kids how to make “shrunken heads” out of dried apples. Her shrunken heads became a display in his lab, supposedly the heads of past employees who failed to measure up.

“It was all harmless, really,” Lorraine said.

In the 1970s, his lab developed a vaccine to prevent Marek’s disease in chickens, a cancer that he’d seen as a boy on the farm, and that benefitted the poultry industry.

Though he kept up with vaccine research, he never learned to use a computer, Lorraine said. He wrote everything out longhand on graph paper.

Maurice officially retired in 1984, but kept working as a consultant and mentor.

Honors and heartbreak

MSU awarded Hilleman an honorary doctorate in 1966.

“He was recognized early here,” said John Jutila. A photo of Hilleman was hung on the wall of MSU’s microbiology department. “He was a terrific scientist.”

When Bozeman scientists working with the startup company Ligocyte moved into vaccine development, they asked Hilleman to serve on the company’s board. That was probably when he was about 80, said Mark Jutila, head of MSU’s microbiology department. “He was amazing.”

President Ronald Regan awarded Maurice the National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest science award, in 1988.

Then in 1998, the British medical journal The Lancet published a paper by Dr. Andrew Wakefield alleging that the MMR vaccine caused autism in children. Many parents became fearful of getting their kids immunized.

The vaccines’ “very success had made them forget just how devastating measles, mumps and rubella could be,” Richard Conniff wrote in the New York Times in 2013. “Dr. Hilleman, who might reasonably have been expected to win a Nobel Prize, got hate mail and death threats instead.”

“We had our mail X-rayed,” Lorraine recalled. “I wasn’t allowed to open any box that came.”

Wakefield’s paper was discredited by several studies and five years after Maurice’s death, Britain stripped Wakefield of his right to practice medicine. The Lancet retracted the article.

“It really depressed him,” Lorraine said. “He was talking about the anti-vaccine people and people not getting vaccinated. He was afraid children were going to have to get the diseases and suffer again for people to understand it’s very serious. And it’s happening.”

Measles outbreaks this year have infected more than 1,200 people in 30 states, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports.

This is the greatest number of cases in the U.S. since 1992 and since the measles was declared eliminated here in 2000. Most cases this year occurred in New York communities that are unvaccinated. More than 120 people were hospitalized, and 64 had complications, including pneumonia and encephalitis.

At his memorial service, a quote from Hilleman was read, the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative reported.

“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?’” Maurice said. “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.”

Rigor and love

Emily Ryan, an MSU sophomore from Three Forks, knows how hard it can be to be a first-generation college student.

She spoke before a ballroom full of people gathered at lunch Aug. 16, to celebrate the Hilleman Scholars Program.

“When I came to college I had no experience, no financial support. The only thing I had backing me was this program,” Ryan said. “I was worried if I’d made a mistake by choosing to seek higher education.”

But thanks to all the program’s helpful people — offering financial advice, tutoring, counseling and encouragement even if a test didn’t go well — she persisted. Ryan’s advice to the newest batch of 50 Hilleman Scholars was to keep going when things seem tough: “Your hard work will pay off in the end.”

MSU’s Hilleman program was inspired three years ago by a report on a similar effort at the University of Texas. Educators there realized that students from poor, minority and rural schools dropped out at a high rate, even if they were bright.

A big problem when students are first in their families to attend college is a fear that they don’t really belong. They take minor setbacks as proof that they should give up and drop out.

So the Hilleman program surrounds students with “rigor and love,” as MSU President Cruzado put it. Students get financial, academic and emotional support. They start school in the summer as a group, spending weeks building writing and math skills, support networks and friendships to help survive their freshman year.

Cruzado said when she first called Carina Beck to discuss the idea, the next day Beck produced a plan for a full program. Looking for an inspirational figure to embody it, Cruzado recalled that Mark Jutila once asked if she’d ever heard of a man named Hilleman, which sparked her curiosity. Finally she phoned Lorraine Hilleman to ask permission to name MSU’s new program after her late husband.

The Hilleman Scholars experiment is working, Cruzado said. The students are taking more courses than average, and staying enrolled in school at a higher rate. The majority of the first Hilleman class that started four years ago is ready to graduate next May — except for a few students who will graduate early in December, she said.

Jenna Barker, 20, a Hilleman Scholar and mentor, said she’s grateful to Maurice Hilleman and his “grit and determination.” The scholars program, she said, “it’s absolutely the best thing that’s happened to me.”

The ballroom audience broke into applause as students gave Lorraine and Kirsten Hilleman hugs and bouquets.

On Aug. 30, Maurice’s 100th birthday, the Hilleman Scholars planned to celebrate by handing out cookies and information to 100 classes and letting 5,000 MSU students learn about Hilleman’s legacy.

Steve Barrett, a former Montana Board of Regents member, chairs the new Hilleman Scholars Advisory Board.

“This would have been me,” Barrett said. “I was the oldest of six boys. No one in our family had ever been to college. We didn’t have a clue.” Investing in America’s people is crucial, he said. “If we do that, we’re going to win.”

“We know you have what it takes and that we believe in you,” Cruzado told the Hilleman scholars.

This is part of the mission of land-grant colleges, she said, to educate the sons and daughters of America’s working families.

“I always ask my Hilleman Scholars and faculty and staff,” Cruzado said, “how many more Maurice Hillemans are out there?”


Information from: Bozeman Daily Chronicle,