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Famous and Not Forgotten: Life-saving Vaccine Scientist Maurice Hilleman

Updated: Dec 12, 2022

Born in Miles City during the most wretched influenza pandemic in history – the Spanish Flu – and at a time when childhood diseases took the lives of thousands, Maurice Hilleman somehow escaped death. Hilleman’s mother died from eclampsia two days after he was delivered and his twin sister was stillborn.

Forever influenced by this trauma, Hilleman made it his life’s labor to see that others could do the same: receive another chance to live. The eventual inventor of approximately 40 vaccines, including many of the most common now administered, Hilleman’s Montana-bred determination has saved untold millions from disease.

Farming Upbringing: Tending Chickens

Maurice Hilleman came from a farming upbringing that would serve as ideal preparation for a scientist to concoct life-rescuing vaccines. Born Saturday morning, August 30, 1919, Hilleman was the youngest of eight children of Anna and Gustave Hillemann. Strong anti-German sentiment following the conclusion of World War I forced his parents to drop the second “n” on Maurice’s birth certificate.

Hilleman was of no-nonsense parentage and his great-uncle had served as an Indian scout in the United States cavalry in the days following Custer’s defeat at the Battle of Little Bighorn. Maurice and his siblings were named after resilient characters in the Elsie Dinsmore books, a children’s series written between 1867 and 1905 about a devout orphan Christian girl.

Before she died of brain swelling caused by complications of childbirth, Anna asked Gustave to take care of the seven older children but to send Maurice to be raised by his aunt and uncle, a childless couple named Robert and Edith. Since Maurice lived within a hundred yards of his biological father and siblings, he grew up on Anna and Gustave’s family farm, the Riverview Garden and Nursery outside Miles City. There he performed many tasks: picking beans and berries, weeding patches, bringing in the horses, and selling anything that people would purchase: tomatoes, potatoes, lettuce, radishes, cabbage, squash, corn, cottage cheese, and pumpkins.

The family sold brooms made from the straw of sorghum sugar and performed a number of landscaping services, from tree rehabilitation and removal to spraying trees to reduce worms and insect manifestations. They raised perennials and annuals and sold flowers, usually on Sundays, to the local florist.

“At one time [our farm] provided an escape for thieves and outlaws who were pursued by vigilante posses from Miles City,” Hilleman recalled in the early 2000s. “There was still a tall cottonwood on the high ground that carried a hangman’s noose in its branches… When I was old enough to tell the difference between a weed and a plant, I was sent out into the sun, working from sunup to sunset.”

On the family farm young Maurice learned agronomy, electrical work, blacksmithing and tool construction. He dismantled irrigation pumps and then rebuilt them to better understand mechanics. For the sake of knowledge, he restored a wrecked 1928 Ford into a functioning motor vehicle.

“When you’re brought up on a farm, you have a lot of general knowledge,” he once said.

Hilleman also tended chickens, keeping the coop clean, feeding and watering, and collecting eggs to bring to market, a life experience that would prove beneficial years later.

Early in life, Hilleman learned that in Montana you were responsible for yourself and that nobody was looking out for you. When he was eight years old, Hilleman almost died of suffocation by diphtheria and was declared dead. Another time, he nearly was flattened by a freight train on a narrow bridge over the Tongue River. On yet another occasion, at the height of flood time, he and his brother bought a small flatbed boat from a hobo for one dollar and rowed the rickety thing down the Yellowstone. Though the family farm was situated on the banks of the Tongue and Yellowstone rivers, Hilleman couldn’t swim. He barely made it back to the edge of the river, covered in mud. He ran home in a panic and told one of his aunts, Edith, how he had nearly drowned. She barely raised an eyebrow and said nothing while continuing to silently wash the family’s clothes.

“She was Lutheran,” Hilleman recalled of the aunt who raised him. “She figured that when your time had come, your time had come.” In one of the strangest incongruities of medical history, Maurice was not permitted to have any vaccines.

His biological father was a devout Lutheran, a domineering man who expected that Maurice and his brothers would become ministers of the faith. But his uncle Robert was an iconoclastic and freethinking life insurance salesman who encouraged Hilleman to question the conventional wisdom and philosophy of his parents. Robert’s influence rubbed off on Hilleman.

One Sunday morning, the minister of the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church in Custer County caught young Maurice reading Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of Species” during the service. The minister attempted to confiscate Darwin’s tract on evolution from the child. “I told the minister that the book belonged to the public library and I was going to turn him in if he took it from me,” Hilleman later recalled. “I was enthralled by Darwin because the church was so opposed to him.”

Hilleman’s first hero was Howard Taylor Ricketts, a pathologist from the Midwest who worked in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley and at the University of Chicago on Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

At Custer County High School Hilleman had the choice of majoring in academics, business, general farming, or science. He picked the latter. All of his brothers made the same decision and also were successful.

Following his graduation in 1937, Maurice went to work as assistant manager at the local J.C. Penney store, starting as a “basement boy” – a respectable, stable position in Eastern Montana in the bitter clutch of the Great Depression - helping “cowpokes pick out chenille bathrobes for their girlfriends.” One of his brothers prodded their father to send Maurice to college; he acquiesced.

“If you lived in Miles City and you were smart,” Hilleman once said, “you went to Concordia College and then to the seminary to be ordained as a Lutheran preacher. But I wasn’t going to do that.”

Too underprivileged to afford the $45-a-term tuition, Maurice applied for and won a full scholarship from Montana State College and after graduating with majors in microbiology and chemistry in 1941, Hilleman won a fellowship to the University of Chicago.

After earning his Ph.D. in microbiology and chemistry, he made vaccine research and development the central purpose of his career.

“He was motivated by one thing — he wanted to try and make vaccines for every disease that could possibly hurt or kill a child,” said friend, colleague and biographer Paul A. Offit, M.D.

A Montanan Who Got Things Done

From the onset of his career, Maurice Hilleman attributed his interest in biology to growing up resourcefully on an isolated farm, and he credited some of his capacity to “get things done,” for example, weakening viruses in laboratory cells and eliminating diseases in the US through vaccines – to lessons that educated him as a child.

“In Montana, things get done,” said Hilleman. “You put up a barn, a fence, a gate. These were project events. Then everybody would go out, get a fresh bucket of water, sit on a log and pass around a cup to celebrate. It’s the same feeling you have when you get a vaccine licensed.”

In 1944, Hilleman received his PhD from the University of Chicago, and one year later was awarded the Howard Taylor Ricketts award (named after his first hero) by that university. He was commended in 1955 for discovering an entirely new family of viruses that cause respiratory disease, such as viral pneumonia and acute sore throat, named by Hilleman as the “RI Viruses.”

In early April 1957, Hilleman read a news bulletin about thousands of mothers in Hong Kong and their long lines of sick, glassy-eyed children and predicted that the next flu pandemic had arrived. He authored and issued a press release on May 22, 1957 predicting to the world that there would be a nasty pandemic when school started in the fall.

Preemptively, Hilleman injected the virus specimen from a Navy soldier into chicken eggs to produce a vaccine and sent virus samples to manufacturers; approximately forty million doses of vaccine were quickly produced in the United States to inoculate against the Asian Flu, saving perhaps tens of thousands of lives. Still, about 116,000 Americans died from the Asian Flu pandemic.

While researching a vaccine for measles, Hilleman discovered that many chicken eggs were contaminated with a highly contagious bird virus, so he went in search of chickens producing virus-free eggs.

He found them at Kimber Farms in California but the farm was reluctant to provide its birds to science until the Montana expatriate running the farm, Helena native W.F. Lamoreux, found out that Hilleman also was a Montanan.

After learning of the shared connection, Lamoreux allowed Hilleman to “take them all” at the generous price of “one buck apiece.”

The first measles vaccine consequently was developed through the participation of a flock of chickens and a virologist and a chicken breeder both born and raised in Montana.

“Montana blood runs very thick,” Hilleman recounted. “And chicken blood runs even thicker with me.”

Vaccines for the future

One of Hilleman’s more significant achievements was the development of the mumps vaccine in 1963, when his five-year-old daughter, Jeryl Lynn, was afflicted with a case of the disease, which then infected approximately a million people in the United States every year.

Named the JLH strain, the vaccine was made from the virus that infected his daughter. At the time of his daughter’s infection, Hilleman was widowed. Only a few months earlier, Thelma, a fellow Custer County High School graduate who married Maurice in Miles City on New Year’s Eve, 1944, had died of breast cancer.

“As with his work on influenza virus, Hilleman turned to chickens,” wrote Paul A. Offit. “When he got back to the laboratory, he took the broth containing Jeryl’s virus and inoculated it into an incubating hen’s egg; in the center of the egg was an unborn chick. During the next few days the virus grew in the membrane that surrounded the chick embryo.”

The mumps vaccine created from chicken membrane was licensed in 1967. Hilleman and his team then developed techniques for cultivating and reducing the effect of the virus in duck eggs, opening the path to a rubella vaccine, which was licensed and distributed in 1969. Around that time Hilleman decided to combine his measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine into a single shot, later known as MMR.

One of Hilleman’s most important innovations was the first vaccine effective against hepatitis B, approved in 1981. He was also the first to develop and mass-market the pneumococcal and chickenpox vaccines.

Toward the end of his life, the damning charge was leveled against Hilleman by a British physician that the MMR vaccine caused autism. Although multiple independent studies demonstrated that MMR did not cause autism and the physician was later charged with misconduct for not revealing unethical financial ties with unscrupulous personal injury lawyers, the allegations still caused an international stir.

Influence of Hilleman Infinite

A titan in scientific circles, Hilleman might be, according to a colleague quoted in Forbes at the time of his death, “the single most influential public health figure of the twentieth century because of his vaccine research and development.”

All the while, however, Hilleman remains something of an unrecognized genius, in no small part because “he was not someone disposed to taking personal credit for his achievements,” said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, to a symposium on Hilleman in 2005.

“He was always quick to give credit to his team members,” said Fauci. “It was never about him… despite Maurice’s enormous accomplishments, his name has never been a household word.”

“Here was a guy,” said Walter Strauss, senior director of epidemiology research at Merck, to author Paul A. Offit, “born on some windswept ranch in Montana, practically orphaned at birth, taken in by relatives, and who, but for his talent and drive, might have spent a lifetime working as a clerk at a retail store. Instead he rose to the pinnacle of scientific achievement in the United States, leaving his mark on half the world’s children. It is one of the greatest of all Horatio Alger stories.”

Maurice Ralph Hilleman died April 11, 2005, aged 85, perhaps the most important person ever born and raised in Montana.

—Brian D’Ambrosio

A 1941 Montana State graduate with dual degrees in chemistry and microbiology, Hilleman is credited with saving the lives of millions through the development of a variety of vaccines, including eight of the 14 vaccines commonly given to children. On Friday, Aug. 30, 2019, in Centennial Mall on campus in Bozeman, MSU hosted a cake cutting to Celebrate Dr. Maurice Hilleman’s 100th Birthday.

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