As COVID-19 vaccines become available to more people across the world, here at the National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF), we are reflecting on the history of vaccinations and the millions of lives they have saved.
Considered “the father of modern vaccines,” NIHF Inductee Maurice Hilleman was the most prolific vaccine scientist of the 20th century and is estimated to have saved more lives than any other medical scientist.
Born in 1919, Hilleman earned a bachelor’s degree in microbiology and chemistry from Montana State University and a doctorate in the same disciplines from the University of Chicago.
Most of Hilleman’s long career was spent at the pharmaceutical company Merck, where he began working as the director of virus and cell biology research in 1957. Here, he led the development of more than three dozen vaccines, including eight of the 14 vaccines routinely recommended to prevent childhood illnesses that were once common throughout the world.
Among the many vaccines developed by Hilleman are those for hepatitis A and B, Haemophilus influenzae type B (Hib), pneumococcus, meningococcus and varicella (chickenpox). Hilleman also became the first person to combine viral vaccines when he created the MMR vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella.
The importance of Hilleman’s vaccines is clear. To put his impact in perspective, the measles vaccine alone has been credited with preventing approximately 1 million deaths.
An Unequaled Legacy
In an interview with the BMJ, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said of Hilleman, “If you look at the whole field of vaccinology, nobody was more influential.”
In addition to his unparalleled contributions to vaccine development, Hilleman was also the first to purify interferon, a discovery that launched new branches of molecular biology and immunology, and he co-discovered adenoviruses and characterized the ongoing evolution of flu viruses, which formed the basis for global flu control strategies.
In 1984, Hilleman retired as director of the Merck Institute for Therapeutic Research. In an academic setting, he continued to work on vaccine development until his death in 2005.
To learn more about how NIHF Inductees have made our daily lives safer, we invite you to visit our blog.