"I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth." (Karl Popper)

Saturday, April 22, 2006

A man who changed the world

Maurice Hilleman died on April 11th last year, aged 85. I confess I wasn't aware of the man until I read this just now. For anyone who was likewise unaware, here is a little piece on the man and his achievements.

Dr. Hilleman was a microbiologist who developed the vaccines used to immunise us from measles, mumps, chickenpox, hepatitis A and B, rubella, pneumonia and meningitis. In all he developed some 40 vaccines. The vaccine for hepatitis B, one of the primary causes of liver cancer, was the first vaccine to protect against cancer. He also developed, among other things, a vaccine for Marek's disease, a viral infection that leads to lymphoma in chickens, thus revolutionising the economics of the poultry industry. Of the 14 vaccines routinely given to young children in the western world, eight were developed by Hilleman and his team at Merck, where from 1957 to 1984 he headed the company's virus and cell biology research department. In 1957, he helped develop the vaccine that kept that year's outbreak of Asian flu from becoming a tragic repeat of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic that killed 20 million people. (As to which, see here.) These bare facts alone inspire awe. To have achieved any one of the above feats would mark a distinguished career; that one man was (largely) responsible for them all defies credulity. As one obituary pointed out however, he did yet more: "In addition he researched the behaviour of viruses and analysed the genetic changes that occur when the influenza virus mutates, work which has enabled epidemiologists to track its development, give early warnings of pandemics and design vaccines in advance of outbreaks."

In 1999, Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, described Hilleman as " one of the true giants of science, medicine and public health in the 20th century". It was no exaggeration, Fauci went on, to say that "Maurice has changed the world." "Since Pasteur," said Dale C. Smith, the chief medical historian at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland, "he's done more for preventive medicine than anyone else." When Hilleman turned 80, a thousand of the world's leading the world's leading infectious-disease experts and other scientists gathered at the Institute of Human Virology, University of Maryland for a symposium in his honour. Robert Gallo, director of the IHV and one of the discoverers of the AIDS virus, commented that: "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. Maurice should be recognized as the most successful vaccinologist in history."

In 1988, president Reagan awarded Hilleman America's highest scientific honour, the National Medal of Science. How he was overlooked all his life for a Nobel prize is a mystery to this uninformed observer: In 1954, for example, Jonas Salk was awarded the prize for his development of a vaccine for polio. Hilleman made similar advances dozens of times. Born in 1919, a year after the Spanish flu pandemic, Maurice Hilleman died as the world stood on the edge of another avian influenza pandemic. If that threat is to be averted, it may be in no small measure due to the pioneering work of the man from the chicken farm in Montana. May he rest in peace.


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