Maurice Ralph Hilleman, whose vaccines probably saved more lives than any scientist in the past century, and whose research helps the medical establishment predict and prepare for upcoming flu seasons, died Monday of cancer at Chestnut Hill Hospital in Philadelphia. He was 85.
Hilleman created eight of the 14 most commonly used vaccines, including those for mumps, measles, chicken pox, pneumonia, meningitis, rubella and many other infectious diseases. He developed more than three dozen vaccines, more than any other scientist. His measles vaccine alone is estimated to prevent 1 million deaths worldwide every year.
“Among scientists, he is a legend. But to the general public, he is the world’s best kept secret,” said Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “I think, without hyperbole, he as an individual has had a more positive impact on the health of the world than any other scientist, any other vaccinologist, in history.”
A scientist of uncommon versatility, Hilleman made significant contributions in both the laboratory and the clinic. His work is credited by scientists for virtually wiping out many of the dreaded and deadly childhood diseases that remained common just 40 years ago.
He also figured out how to combine the shots for measles, mumps and rubella into one shot, followed by a booster, an advance welcomed by needle-averse children.
Fauci described Hilleman as both impatient and careful: “He had this irreverent, no-nonsense, let’s-get-it-done attitude that perfectly complemented a highly sophisticated intellect.”
Hilleman also pioneered the development of vaccines against hepatitis A and hepatitis B. In addition to his creation of nearly 40 vaccines, Hilleman discovered several viruses and discovered the genetic changes that occur when the influenza virus mutates, known as shift and drift.