And that’s where his life might have stayed, had a brother not intervened.
Despite the lingering grip of the Great Depression, the older son convinced the family to find a way to send the teenager to college. He got a scholarship at Montana State University, where he would graduate at the top of his class and go on to study microbiology at the University of Chicago.
Hilleman’s is a classic tale of grit and, ultimately, groundbreaking success, even if most Americans don’t know his name. Working for decades in the pharmaceutical industry, he developed more than 40 vaccines. Nine are part of the 14 essential childhood vaccines — including measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis A, hepatitis B and meningitis — that have protected untold millions of children around the world from devastating diseases and early deaths.
“One of his accomplishments would have been enough for one person for a lifetime,” said his biographer, Paul Offit, an infectious disease specialist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
One vaccine was never enough for Hilleman. His wife and daughters recall how he always carried a handwritten note in his pocket, a list of the diseases he still wanted to wrangle.
Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, met Hilleman in the 1980s while researching an AIDS vaccine. He already was a legend, both for his scientific discoveries and his bold, often crass language and style. Fauci recalls being star-struck, then forging a years-long friendship and professional collaboration.
“I remember when I just heard his name, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, am I ever going to meet this guy,’” Fauci said in an interview.
The two remained close until Hilleman died in 2005. Today, Fauci is at the center of the pandemic as the world hunts for a solution to the novel coronavirus that has infected more than 5 million people and killed at least 338,000 worldwide, including more than 94,000 Americans. He is “cautiously optimistic” about progress being made; early human trials of a government-backed vaccine have shown promising results but also prompted skepticism.
Yet there’s a necessary balance between safety and speed, something Hilleman heeded. With his brash style, Fauci said, Hilleman would be “butting heads with people” in this polarized political environment to get the job done carefully but fast.
Hilleman’s ability to marshal people and resources were key in 1957, when, acting on reports from Hong Kong that signaled a looming flu pandemic, he convinced U.S. chicken farmers not to kill their roosters as part of a public health mobilization. The onetime farm boy knew the seasonal cycles of poultry production, and his foresight on the need for enough fertilized eggs ensured the country had adequate raw materials for mass vaccination — using a vaccine he developed.
In considering Hilleman’s impact, there’s a puzzle: Compared to Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, the most successful vaccinologist in history is unknown. Fauci and others say the reason is twofold. First, Hilleman worked in industry, not academia, which he found too slow. Second, and perhaps more importantly, they say, he didn’t care about fame. His priority was not putting his name on scientific papers; his singular motivation was making vaccines that saved lives.
Hilleman spent his career on the East Coast, but he never stopped talking about his home state. A scholar’s program now bears his name at his alma mater in Bozeman, aimed at identifying Montana high school students who might not be headed to college and placing them on a rigorous track to show them what they can achieve.
MSU President Waded Cruzado says Hilleman’s story — of a poor kid who got a chance to go to college and ended up saving millions of lives — proves the power of education.
“When we armed him with opportunities, he took advantage of it, he became the most prolific vaccinologist in the history of humankind,” she said. “What keeps me up at night is wondering how many other Maurice Hillemans are out there.”
Lorraine Hilleman links her husband’s drive to his childhood on the farm — his mother’s death from childbirth, his awareness of loss. Miles City, for one, was hit hard during the 1918 flu pandemic, and he would have grown up hearing stories of many families’ struggles and grief.
“He was really motivated to prevent suffering of people, and he couldn’t stand to see adults suffer either,” she said from her home in California. “He grew up in such an inhospitable place that he learned resilience at a very young age.”
In a 2016 documentary, he is shown pondering his legacy: “Looking back on one’s lifetime, you say, ‘Jeez, what have I done? Have I done enough to justify having been here?’ and that’s a big worry, to people from Montana, at least.”
His older daughter, Jeryl Lynn Hilleman, for whom the strain of mumps used in a Merck vaccine is named, misses being able to talk to her father at moments like now.
“He would be on the phone, reading, learning, gaining as much knowledge as he could, and at the same time doing what he did best, which was galvanizing people into effective action,” she said. “He did not waste time.”
In his later years, Hilleman was troubled by the pushback against vaccines in this country. Anti-vaccine groups targeted him with harassment and death threats, both emblematic of the challenges to public health that have only grown in the past decade. Amid the current pandemic, there’s concern about the crossover between those anti-vaccination voices and the protests in some states against stay-at-home orders and other protective measures.
Fauci believes the only response is to pursue good science and show results. His family and friends say Hilleman would have done just that.
“He got the job done, and his work lives on after him,” Fauci said. “He has a legacy that won’t ever go away.”