by Paul A. Offit, MD
It is entirely possible that Maurice Hilleman saved your life. And chances are good you’ve never heard of him. He never won a Nobel prize, he’s not featured in many textbooks, and he never got his picture on bubblegum cards, and yet his contributions to public health completely eclipse those of other, more familiar names.
This book is both a history of vaccination and a biography of a man who contributed so much to the field. We’ve all gotten our shots to help keep us protected from polio, pertussis, rubella, and many other diseases that once terrified people because of their destructive power. Yes, in most children, measles and mumps are relatively mild and short-lived illnesses, but thousands of children developed complications and became deaf or blind, or paralyzed, or hospitalized with meningitis. The reason that we don’t fear these viruses anymore is because we have means to protect ourselves thrugh vaccines – many of which Hilleman developed.
When his daughter came down with a case of mumps, Hilleman cultured her throat for the virus, which he then used to make an attenuated (weakened) strain that was enough to cause the body to make antibodies, but not enough to infect a person and cause the disease. You know you’re a scientist when you see your sick daughter as a body full of starter material for your viral cultures!
Hilleman predicted the pattern of influenza pandemics and was instrumental in getting vaccine made against the 1957 asian flu. FYI: he predicts another one in 2025, so please be sure to get your flu shot that year. He developed a vaccine for chickens to prevent them getting Marek’s disease, a tumor disorder – essentially a vaccine against a form of cancer. He was the first to purify interferon, a virus-inhibiting substance made by our immune systems – interferon is used in treatment of viral hepatitis and certain cancers today. He made a vaccine against Japanese Encephalitis Virus that was used to protect American troops during WW2.
Over the course of his life, Hilleman developed vaccines for measles, mumps, chickenpox, hepatitis A and B, Haemophilus influenzae, and Streptococcus pneumoniae, and performed many experiments and made many discoveries that helped others to make progress towards other vaccines and treatments.
This was a fascinating look back at the history of vaccination and many of the researchers who played a part, and I recommend it to anyone who has any curiosity about medical history, or even history in general. I was pleased to see chapters on the modern anti-vaccination movement as well, along with the controversies surrounding the development of some of these vaccines. Some use embryonic cells because the viruses involved will not grow well in other animals’ tissues, which is a huge moral issue for many. Some vaccines made from human blood or from monkey tissues carried a tiny risk of piggybacking other viruses along and infecting people, despite extreme efforts to prevent that from happening. Also, in the early days, vaccines were often tested on mentally retarded children. This was not because of their condition or because they didn’t need consent – in fact, they did have consent of the parents – but because these children lived together in large asylums and were at great risk for these childhood diseases. That doesn’t necessarily make it right, but they had logical reasons at the time and weren’t doing it maliciously.
I can’t believe I never even knew this guy existed. Part of it is because he worked for pharmaceutical companies and not in academic research, but I’m not sure that’s a good enough reason for his contributions to be glossed over when learning about vaccinations. We all know Salk and Sabin – we should know Hilleman too.