Professor Hilleman: The Man Behind Half of our Vaccines
Author: Samuel Ognensis, Education and Advocacy Officer, AMSA International Australia
Originally published as a News Article in Issue 17 of Vector magazine. For full issue, click here.
Measles. Mumps. Hepatitis B. Varicella. Haemophilus influenzae.
Just a handful of the diseases for which we have an effective vaccine.
They are also a handful of diseases for which vaccines have been developed (either solely or primarily) by one man, the late Professor Maurice Hilleman. Arguably the world’s greatest ever vaccinologist, Prof. Hilleman is, responsible for around half of the current schedule of childhood vaccinations.
Despite this lofty title and all his pioneering achievements, Prof. Hilleman remains a relatively unknown figure. Not only to the general public, but also amongst many in the medical and broader scientific community. This is surprising given his incredible public health achievements, and that he has received a number of significant honours, including the U.S. ‘National Medal of Science’.
In 2007, Paediatrician Prof. Paul Offit wrote an enthralling biography about Prof. Hilleman’s life works and achievements, short titled ‘Vaccinated’. As part of the AMSA International Australia (AIA) interview series, I discussed the life of Maurice Hilleman, as well as vaccines more generally, with Prof. Offit, undoubtedly one of the eminent figures in this field.
Describing his achievements as ‘other worldly”’ and ‘“unprecedented’”, Prof. Offit explains a possible reason for why Prof. Hilleman’s name and legacy remains a relative secret:
“He worked for a company. We don’t like our heroes to come from industry. We like them to come from academia. That seems pure, more wholesome.”
In a time when there is growing discussion around the encroachment of ‘Big Pharma’ into both academic and clinical medicine, and the negative impacts that often follow. It is interesting to consider that as an employee of Merck, Prof. Hilleman, through an incredible scientific mind, was able to save more lives each day, than almost all of us as individual doctors would save over many lifetimes.
Whilst Prof. Hilleman, with millions of lives saved each year, is clearly an outlier, it raises question of our perceptions of public academia versus private industry. Indeed, it may help remind us of the fact that most Australian medical professionals tread a balance of public and private employment over their careers, and that both help provide significant benefit to patients, and the wider community.
To clarify, Prof. Offit also points out that Prof. Hilleman did have an extensive career as an academic scientist, including discovering Chlamydia was a bacteria (not a virus as previously believed), and performing extensive “seminal” research into interferon.
“But (Hilleman) would’ve never have been able to have done what he did if he worked solely in academia”, Prof. Offit notes.
Had Prof. Hillman done so his achievements may not have been so incredible, although he would have likely achieved far more public awareness and credit for his work.
“Jonas Salk got a ticker tape parade down the centre streets of New York when he made his vaccine. Maurice Hilleman essentially made 9 vaccines.” Yet he remains unrecognised by many in the scientific community, and indeed by the public at‒large.
And when it comes to the prospect of a Nobel Prize, Prof. Offit has a similar explanation, from an experience with someone who is part of the Nobel decision process: “I said, “Why not Maurice Hilleman?” And he said, “Because he works for a company.””
Despite this, Prof. Hilleman was by all reports not someone who sought the spotlight, or to garner support and compliments for his work. His drive was to find a new project to pursue. A new disease to eradicate. One vaccine at a time. And over many decades, Prof. Hilleman achieved this target, time and time again, to the point where his life’s work seems more a work of fiction, of hyperbole.
But sometimes reality is stranger, or in this case more wonderful, than fiction. And for this, we all owe a great deal of thanks to the dedicated Microbiologist from Montana, who saw a problem, and needed to fix it.
When not writing books, Prof. Offit is the Director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. He is regarded as a ‘go‒to’ expert on vaccine development, vaccine safety and disease outbreaks, regularly interviewed on television and radio. In recent times, Prof. Offit has been extensively consulted and interviewed in the wake of the ‘Disneyland’ Measles outbreak. He is also the receiver of much ‘hate mail’ from anti‒vaccination individuals and groups, for his dedication to the vaccine cause.
Fittingly, Prof. Offit now serves as the Maurice R. Hilleman Professor of Vaccinology, and, like Prof. Hilleman, as a Professor of Paediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania.
In our interview, Prof. Offit and I covered a range of issues around vaccines, and also around the ban he helped introduce on vaccine supplementation at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. We discuss why, and what impacts this policy has had.
Watch the full interview with Prof. Offit here.
For all AIA interviews, visit our Channel.