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Of Molecules & Medicine: Dr Maurice Hilleman (“The Father of Modern Vaccines”)

By David Rushton, Partner

As the development and possible approval of a vaccine for Covid-19 gathers momentum, we take a brief look at and reflect on the life of the American microbiologist and inventor Dr Maurice Hilleman who specialised in vaccinology and is widely regarded as the 20th century’s leading vaccinologist.

Dr Maurice Hilleman is sometimes referred to as “The father of modern vaccines” and last year marked one hundred years since his birth in Montana. However, outside of his chosen field and to the public at large, it would seem he remains relatively unknown despite his many and long lasting achievements.

During his career, Dr Hilleman developed over forty vaccines for humans and animals. He developed eight of the fourteen vaccines which are currently recommended in the US, including those for measles, mumps, hepatitis A and B, and chickenpox. He also played a significant role in the discovery of the cold producing adenoviruses.

Dr Hilleman started his career at E.R. Squibb & Sons (now Bristol-Myers Squibb) where he developed a vaccine against encephalitis B for use mainly for US troops during World War II. As chief of the Department of Respiratory Diseases at the Army Medical Center shortly after the war, Dr Hilleman discovered the generic changes that occur when the influenza virus mutates, known as shift and drift. Based on this discovery, he proposed a flu vaccination would be required on an annual basis. His swift action in 1957 meant that an outbreak of influenza in Hong Kong did not become a huge pandemic.

Dr Hilleman later joined Merck & Co where he developed, with co-workers, most of the forty animal and human vaccines with which he’s credited. It was during his time at Merck that Dr Hilleman cultivated material from his daughter who had gone down with mumps and used it as the basis of the mumps vaccine. The “Jeryl Lynn” strain is still used today and currently used in the MMR vaccine which itself was the first vaccine approved incorporating multiple live virus strains. Dr Hilleman is reported as considering his work on hepatitis B as his greatest achievement which subsequently helped remove one of the most important obstacles facing organ transplantation.

Dr Hilleman earned some of the highest honours in his field including the National Medal of Science in 1988, the highest scientific honour given by the United States; and a special lifetime achievement award from the Children’s Vaccine Initiative of the World Health Organisation in 1996. Dr Robert C. Gallo, who is best known for his work in co-discovering that HIV was the cause of AIDS and developed the HIV blood test, commented that if he had to name a person who had done more for the benefit of human health, with less recognition than anyone else, it would be Dr Hilleman[1]. Dr Anthony Fauci (Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases), commented that “Hilleman is one of the true giants of science, medicine and public health in the 20th Century.” He went on to add that “One can say without hyperbole that Maurice has changed the world.” It is fair to say that vaccines are one of the greatest public health success stories in history and Dr Hilleman’s legacy extends throughout the world.

Dr Hilleman is named as an inventor on numerous patents.  A few examples of his work and that of his co-workers are set out below:

US 3555149:                   Mumps vaccine and its preparation

US 3401084:                   Rubella vaccine and its preparation

US 3906092:                   Stimulation of antibody response

US 5021348:                     Attenuated hepatitis A virus

EP 0028987 B1: Process for in vivo culture of hepatitis B virus

[1] Los Angeles Times, 13 April 2005