Almost nobody has heard of Maurice Hilleman, but everyone should know his name. As Radiolab said, “his work is estimated to save about 8 million lives a year… he was the greatest scientist of the 20th century… We live longer because of him.”
He developed treatments that cured or prevented chlamydia, Japanese encephalitis, the flu, measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox hepatitis A, hepatitis B, Streptococcus pneumoniae, rubella and Haemophilus influenza. In addition to discovering several viruses and uses of antibiotics. This is a monumental amount of work. For example, the world record for the fastest vaccine ever produced (before the Coronavirus) was Hilleman’s four years of work to produce the mumps vaccine. Four years!
…he carried around a list …he kept in his pocket. [A] list of diseases that still had yet to be conquered. And I think it was a reminder that, you know, for him, his work would never be done… He would say it was like putting up a fence. …And then you’re done, and then you go back to doing it again. He was never, ever satisfied… Well, so after mumps, it was measles… And with measles, there’s actually already a vaccine in existence… And, I mean, that vaccine worked. But it wasn’t quite attenuated enough… Like, it wasn’t weak enough, so you would have to get another shot at the same time in your other arm so you didn’t get sick… Maurice then just took that virus and very quickly attenuated it so that it was perfect. That virus bounces off you. It’s a remarkable vaccine. And so we eliminated measles, the most contagious of the vaccine-preventable diseases, because it was so incredibly effective.
Maurice Hilleman developed more than 40 vaccines altogether including eight of the 14 that all children get. To put that in context, Paul Offit is comparatively renowned for having created one of those 14 childhood vaccines, the vaccine for rotavirus, and it took him 26 years! Paul Offit was quoted on Radiolab saying that Maurice Hilleman has always been unknown because:
he was humble. As rough as he was and as crude as he could be (laughter) and how – as profane as he could be, he was a humble man. He never promoted himself. So he just always flew below the radar, remarkably enough, given his accomplishments. I honestly think he was the single most-accomplished scientist in history. And when he died, I was at a – I gave a talk at the University of Pittsburgh. His son-in-law called me to say that he had passed away. And then after I heard that news, I walked in among a group of 35 to 50 pediatricians and say, you know, here’s this man, Maurice Hilleman, who just passed away. No one heard of him. No one – zero. And these are pediatricians who give his vaccines.
This is a good time to recognize the success of medical pioneers like Hilleman. For more, see the 1-hour award-winning documentary about Hilleman: A Perilous Quest To Save The World’s Children.