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Maurice R. Hilleman, 85; Scientist Developed Many Vaccines That Saved Millions of Lives

April 13, 2005|Thomas H. Maugh II | Times Staff Writer

Maurice R. Hilleman, the vaccine developer who may have saved more lives than any other scientist of the 20th century, died from cancer Sunday at Chestnut Hill Hospital in Philadelphia. He was 85.

In a remarkably productive career, Hilleman and his team created more than 40 human and animal vaccines, including those for measles, mumps, chickenpox, rubella, hepatitis A and B, and meningitis.

His team at Merck & Co. developed eight of the 14 vaccines that are routinely given to young children in this country. Those vaccines effectively banished many of the most disabling and deadly childhood diseases in the United States and the rest of the world.

Hilleman was also the first to identify how the influenza virus mutates, and he virtually single-handedly spearheaded creation of the vaccine that prevented the Asian flu outbreak of 1957 from becoming a repeat of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, which killed 20 million people worldwide.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday April 16, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
Measles -- An obituary of vaccine developer Maurice R. Hilleman in Wednesday's California section incorrectly stated that measles had been eradicated.

He played key roles in the discovery of the cold-producing adeno- viruses, the hepatitis viruses and the cancer-causing virus SV-40, among others. He was also the first to produce a vaccine against a virally induced cancer.

"Hilleman is one of the true giants of science, medicine and public health in the 20th century," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

"One can say without hyperbole that Maurice has changed the world," he added.

Hilleman's name "will be joined forever" with those of people like Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch "in the story of man's striving against pathogens," said Dr. Robert C. Gallo, director of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland.

In later life, Hilleman was an advisor to the World Health Organization, the U.S. National Vaccine Program and other groups, traveling throughout the world to promote vaccination.

He never won a Nobel Prize, because those awards are designed to honor basic research, not practical applications. But Hilleman received many other awards, including the 1988 National Medal of Science, the nation's highest honor, which was presented by President Reagan.

"If I had to name a person who has done more for the benefit of human health, with less recognition than anyone else, it would be Maurice Hilleman," Gallo said six years ago. "Maurice should be recognized as the most successful vaccinologist in history."

That was a long distance to travel for a boy born on a high-plains farm near Miles City in eastern Montana. His mother and twin sister died in the birth process Aug. 30, 1919.

Maurice and his seven older siblings were raised by relatives on a farm not far from the Little Bighorn battlefield 100 miles southwest of his birthplace. They tended cattle and chickens, raised vegetables and made brooms that they sold in town.

The future scientist took a special interest in the chickens, caring for them, learning about them, even figuring out how to hypnotize roosters. That experience proved invaluable in later years, because many of his creations were produced in chicken eggs.

"Coming from a farm," he once said, "I always had a good friend called the chicken."

When he graduated from Custer County High School in 1937, there was no money for college, and Hilleman took a job at the local J.C. Penney store, intending to make a career with the company. But when his oldest brother came home from seminary that summer, he demanded that Maurice go to college.

The future vaccine developer got a scholarship to what is now Montana State University in Bozeman and then a fellowship to the University of Chicago for graduate study. His prize-winning thesis reported the first way to identify different strains of chlamydia, one of the microorganisms that cause venereal disease.

He achieved this feat, which many at the time believed impossible, by using antibodies produced when he injected chlamydia from parrots into chickens.

His first job was at E.R. Squibb & Sons, where he developed his first vaccine, which protected American troops from the Japanese B encephalitis virus while fighting in the Pacific during World War II.

In 1948, Hilleman went to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where he began research on the influenza virus. He showed that the virus underwent two major forms of mutation, called drift and shift.

Drift is the slow, subtle change in surface characteristics that necessitates the production of a new vaccine each year. Shift is a major change in those characteristics that produces, in effect, an entirely new virus to which the population has no resistance. A shift triggered the 1918 pandemic.

Hilleman was reading the New York Times in his basement office at Walter Reed on April 17, 1957, when he saw an article about a flu outbreak in Hong Kong that had already afflicted 250,000 people. He was struck by a reference to "glassy-eyed children," which suggested high fevers.

In his usual earthy manner, he recalled later, "I said, 'Son of a bitch. This is pandemic flu.' "

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