Written by Niyati Kanotra, a grade 12 student
As we face a pandemic today, here’s a story about someone who saved many lives in an earlier pandemic.
Maurice Ralph Hilleman was an American virologist who developed more than 40 vaccines.
Born on 30th August near the high plains town of Miles City, Montana, Maurice was the eighth child of his parents Anna and Gustav Hilleman. He graduated from Montana State University in the year 1941 and won a fellowship to the University of Chicago. He received his doctoral degree in microbiology in the year 1944. As a young boy, science intrigued Maurice a lot, and he was particularly interested in the writings of Charles Darwin.
As stated above, Maurice has more than 40 vaccines to his credit. In the year 1944, he developed his first vaccine while working at a company called E.R. Squibb & Sons. The vaccine developed protected against Japanese encephalitis (JE) virus which was the most common cause of encephalitis in the world, it was made to protect the U.S troops during World War II.
In 1949, he started studying the influenza virus in order to understand it better. He studied the changes the virus undergoes and in 1957 he was able to predict a pandemic in Hong Kong, making him the first person in history to ever predict a pandemic. Fortunately, he discovered a vaccine for the influenza pandemic before it entered the US but close to 70,000 deaths occurred because of the pandemic.
Maurice’s vaccine saved a lot of lives during that pandemic otherwise it was estimated that almost one million deaths would have occurred had the vaccine not been discovered. By the end of 1957, Maurice started working in Merck & Co. where he developed vaccines to protect humanity against chickenpox, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, pneumococcus, meningococcus, measles, mumps, and rubella. The story behind him discovering the vaccine for mumps virus was that of his daughter who ended up contracting mumps in 1963 and he was able to weaken the mumps virus which resulted in him discovering this vaccine. Maurice was also the first person to develop a vaccine against a that caused liver cancer in people known as the hepatitis B vaccine, it is considered to be his greatest achievement. By the year 2003, 150 countries started using it and it led to a decrease in this disease by 95% in the U.S.A.
According to an estimate, Hilleman’s vaccines save nearly 8 million lives a year, no wonder he is also known as the father of vaccines. In his career, he was the recipient of many awards such as a special lifetime achievement award from the World Health Organization, Lasker Medical Research Award which is the nation’s highest biomedical award. He was also recognized with the National Medal of Science. Hilleman retired from Merck at the age of 65. After his retirement, he continued to contribute towards science as a consultant and mentor to people working towards the development of vaccines.
Maurice died on April 11th, 2005 in Philadelphia because of cancer. He left behind his second wife, Lorraine, his two daughters, Jeryl Lynn and Kirsten, and five grandchildren. After his death, Ralph Nader said, “Yet almost no one knew about him, saw him on television, or read about him in newspapers or magazines. His anonymity, in comparison with Madonna, Michael Jackson, Jose Canseco, or an assortment of grade B actors, tells something about our society’s and media’s concepts of celebrity; much less of the heroic.” Maurice was described a “workaholic” by his colleagues and continued working until his death. It is only because of him that now the world has cured so many diseases and millions of lives are saved everywhere because of the legacy that Maurice Hilleman left behind, he continues to be an inspiration to many virologists around the world.
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