Saturday, April 30, 2005

Thank you Mr. Hilleman - for saving our children Obituary: Maurice Hilleman, pioneer of preventive medicine, died on April 11th, aged 85

You've heard a lot about Michael Jackson. You've never heard of Maurice Hilleman. Funny, eh?

The Economist chose Maurice Hilleman for their obituary this week. They did the same thing for Pope John-Paul II, but Mr. Hilleman did much more for humanity than the Pope. Miles City, Montana doesn't have much to brag about -- seems they ought to find the money for a monument somewhere ...
Apr 21st 2005

A STORY that Maurice Hilleman liked to tell to illustrate his work as a developer of vaccines concerned his daughter Jeryl Lynn. In 1963 at the age of five she caught mumps, a highly infectious disease of childhood that is usually benign but can be a killer. Mr Hilleman used swabs to collect the mumps virus growing in her throat, and preserved it in a jar of beef broth. He produced a form of the virus that was too weak to cause disease but strong enough to trigger the body's natural defences and make the person immune. The weakened strain, named after Jeryl Lynn, has become the standard vaccine to prevent mumps. The disease is now rare, at least in rich countries.

Identifying the problem, collecting data, finding a solution: Mr Hilleman developed some 40 vaccines, among them for measles, hepatitis A and B, chickenpox, meningitis and pneumonia. He developed the one-shot vaccine that can prevent several diseases, such as MMR (measles, mumps and rubella)...

... Mr Hilleman's greatest contribution to a healthy world may have been his work on the safe mass production of vaccines that can be stored ready for use against the pandemics that since antiquity have regularly swept across continents, such as the 1918 flu outbreak that killed more than 20m people. In 1957, when flu swept through Hong Kong, Mr Hilleman identified the virus as a new form to which people had no natural immunity and passed on his findings to vaccine-makers. When the virus reached the United States a few months later 40m doses of vaccine were ready to limit its damage. Mr Hilleman established that the flu virus is constantly mutating, making it difficult to provide a reliable vaccine...

...Miles City sounds primitive rather than simple. It had been a frontier town and the older inhabitants still told stories of Indian battles. Young Hilleman was poor. His mother and twin sister had died during his birth and he and his seven surviving siblings had been brought up on a farm by relations. At the age of 18 he was working in a shop.

For a young man who felt that life must have more to offer than selling goods to cowboys and their girlfriends, there were two glimpses of a more interesting world. One was his homemade radio, which could just pick up talk and music programmes broadcast from distant Chicago. The other was the local public library, where he found a copy of Darwin's “On the Origin of Species”, which had avoided the censorship of the town's fundamentalist church.
Now that's one heck of a life.

No comments: