The Washington Post
Imagine where we’d be without Maurice Hilleman
Long before there was Operation Warp Speed, there was Maurice Hilleman. Before the magnificent multibillion-dollar project to find a vaccine for covid-19, there was a guy from Montana with the brilliance of a great scientist and the swagger of a cowboy. Hilleman created more than 40 vaccines. In the 1950s, he and his team stopped a rampaging pandemic. Across his career, he saved millions of lives. A person who saves one life is a hero. What do we call the person who saves too many to count?
Don’t answer that. Not now, amid the anti-vaccine backlash of a spoiled, forgetful species. Hilleman worked his pinprick miracles at a time when Americans knew and feared the deadly terrors of communicable disease. We will know, and fear, them again if antivaxxers prevail.
Born on the frontier in 1919, as a catastrophic influenza pandemic raged throughout the world, Hilleman lost his mother and twin sister to birth-related causes during the first days of his life. He grew up brusque, competitive and determined to beat disease. His professors at the University of Chicago urged him to apply his genius to academic science. But Hilleman insisted on work that would have immediate results — the sharp end of the spear. He went to work for a large pharmaceutical firm.
It was 1944. The United States was preparing for an eventual invasion of Japan, where a deadly strain of encephalitis awaited troops who had no natural immunity. Hilleman pitched in to develop a vaccine in a matter of months. By age 30, he was chief of respiratory diseases at the Army’s research institute at what is now the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. There, he figured out how the flu virus mutates quickly and migrates from birds to humans, via pigs.
In April 1957, Hilleman noticed a brief article in the back pages of the New York Times. Thousands of “glassyeyed” children were overwhelming clinics in Hong Kong. He immediately recognized that influenza had taken a giant leap — and a pandemic was headed his way. The young scientist sent airplanes halfway around the world to collect virus samples and risked his reputation by rushing out 40 million doses of a rapidly created vaccine. Roosters throughout the United States enjoyed longer lives to produce the fertilized eggs in which the vaccines grew.
Hilleman stopped what had been called the “Asian flu” in its tracks. He was just getting started.
He crossed my path when I was 10 years old.
School officials summoned our classes to the gymnasium one morning. They arranged us in rows on the floor in alphabetical order. At a signal, we were to stand, turn and walk silently into the school library nearby. Medical authorities would meet us there to jab vaccines into our upper arms.
This was Hilleman’s doing, I learned many years later. Chief vaccine scientist at the Merck & Co. superlab by this point, Hilleman had combined his vaccine for mumps (which he developed after scraping virus from his own daughter’s mouth) with vaccines for measles and rubella. Hundreds of millions of children have received the lifesaving MMR vaccine in the half-century since we marched through the library.
I was not at all afraid of measles, mumps or rubella. Like covid-19, they were all diseases that infected children but rarely killed us. They wrought greater havoc on adults in our lives, and on their unborn children. What I feared — deeply, desperately — was needles. That walk from the gym to the library, perhaps 100 feet, was the longest of my life. If a man with a scar, a dripping knife and a white panel van had appeared and offered to save me, I would have run to him. The room swam as I felt my shirt sleeve pushed up. Then I was stung and swabbed with cold alcohol, and staggered away like a branded calf.
Can you imagine what hay Florida Gov. Ron Desantis (R) and his fellow vote-grubbing vaccine skeptics would have made with the picture of 300 alphabetized schoolchildren shuffling along to be stuck? At age 10, I would have greeted the demagogues as liberators — but as the Bible advises, I’ve put away childish things. I thank heaven for Hilleman and John Enders, Albert Sabin, Jonas Salk, Emil von Behring and countless other virologists who transformed the world with their life-preserving vaccines.
Vaccination is not a choice. It’s a responsibility. Just as we pay gasoline taxes to use the roads, we suffer an occasional pinprick to live healthier lives than our pre-vaccine forebears. It is the very small price for very large gains. Are you hideously scarred by smallpox? Born deaf and blind from rubella? Paralyzed by polio? Did you die in your 20s, coughing your lungs out from tuberculosis?
Probably not, because you live in the age of vaccines.
My 10-year-old self would never have said it, but 50 years later, here goes. Dr. Hilleman: Thanks for the jab.